September 20th, 2011
09:21 PM ET

Prosecutor says he has no doubt about Troy Davis' guilt

For the Georgia prosecutor who put Troy Davis on trial in 1991 for killing a cop and won a conviction, there were two cases being fought.

"There is the legal case, the case in court, and the public relations case," Spencer Lawton, the former Chatham County prosecutor, said. "We have consistently won the case as it has been presented in court. We have consistently lost the case as it has been presented in the public realm, on TV and elsewhere."

Lawton spoke to CNN about the Davis case, his first interview on the case since Davis' initial trial, after the Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles denied clemency for the death-row inmate on Tuesday.

Davis was convicted of the 1989 killing of Savannah, Georgia, police officer Mark MacPhail. He is scheduled to be executed by lethal injection at 7 p.m. Wednesday at a state prison in Jackson, Georgia.

After he was sentenced to death, Davis' lawyers filed a federal court appeal insisting there was "no physical evidence linking" Davis to MacPhail’s murder. They called the testimony of a ballistics expert that shell casings from another shooting by Davis matched casings found at the murder scene an "unremarkable conclusion" since the murder weapon was not found.

"We believe that we've established substantial doubt in this case," Stephen Marsh, Davis' attorney, said at the time. "And given the level of doubt that exists in this case, we believe that an execution is simply not appropriate."

Thousands of influential dignitaries, including the pope, South Africa's Desmond Tutu and former President Jimmy Carter, as well as more than 600,000 people have signed a petition seeking to stop Davis' execution.

Lawton says he believes the outrage over the sentence resulted from a public relations campaign by Davis' supporters, while prosecutors remained silent outside the courtroom.

"It's just been my policy, that I not comment on a pending case - and this case has been pending for two decades," he said. "For two decades, I've maintained my silence. That meant I could never respond.

"So we have been at an extreme disadvantage in the public relations campaign for that reason, because we felt that we were ethically bound to maintain our silence and express our opinions and judgments on the facts in court, which is where we have. And every place we have, we have won."

Now that he can speak, since he considers the case officially closed with the parole board's ruling, he wants to clear the air about a few things.

He told CNN he has no doubt about Davis' guilt. He said he believes supporters have been misinformed about the facts of the case.

He said he believed that documents from early on in the trial were being "exploited" when supporters tried to cast doubt on physical evidence or said there was none.

Davis was convicted of the first, non-fatal, shooting in Savannah's Cloverdale neighborhood that night.  Lawton said there was confusion over evidence in the murder case because the shell casings from both shootings wound up in the same evidence bag.

"That confusion was subsequently resolved; it was resolved adequately at trial," he said. "Our problem, from the state's point of view, is the documents, which initially reflect the initial confusion, are still out there and are being exploited to that end."

Davis' supporters also have attacked the witness testimony in the murder trial as shoddy and pointed out that several witnesses, including some who had claimed that Davis told them he killed the officer, later recanted their testimony, in some case blaming pressure from police.

But Lawton said recanted statements don't deserve the validity they have been given in media accounts.  He said a judge ruled they were at the very least "suspect" because they were not given under oath and prosecutors never got the opportunity to cross-examine the recanting witnesses in court.

He also said the question of duress cuts both ways.

"I think that what you would find is there was as much duress applied to get the affidavits as the affidavits are said to contain allegations of duress on the part of police," he said.

And  Lawton question why it took Davis' lawyers 15 or 20 years to get these witnesses to recant and why they then waited until eight days before Davis' first scheduled execution to make these explosive statements public.

Lawton told CNN he believes "that the affidavits of recantation were of more value to the attorneys as a device for delay than they were valuable as a device for substantive argument."

Lawton said the lengthy nature of the case has helped rampant speculation override the facts.

"It has been a game of delay throughout. The longer the delay, the more time they have to create not doubt, not honest doubt, not real doubt, but the appearance of doubt," he said. "And there are people who have not troubled themselves to acquaint themselves with the record, who don't know the facts, who do oppose the death penalty and who have been willing on the strength of that emotion alone to assume the truth of the allegations of the weakness of evidence in the case."

Lawton said some people who are fully aware of the facts believe the death penalty doesn't fit the crime, and he understands how they've reached that conclusion.

Lawton questioned Pope Benedict XVI's interpretation of the intricacies of Georgia law.

"His holiness has expressed his objection to the death penalty in the case, although it's noteworthy he didn't constrain himself to the issue of morality of the death penalty - he went on to comment on the sufficiency of evidence in the case," Lawton said regarding the pope's recent comments. "This is not something I had previously thought the Holy See had expertise in, that is to say Georgia's evidentiary rules."

He also challenged the views of former FBI director and federal district judge William S. Sessions, and Bob Barr, a former federal prosecutor and Georgia congressman, who have said there is no credible physical evidence in the case.

"Their credibility is hanging on a falsehood," Lawton said. "They would know differently if they looked at the record."

As for President Carter's position that Davis should get life without parole because he was unfairly convicted based on the evidence, Lawton said:

"This is fuzzy thinking. This is what happens when you try a criminal case in the streets, when it becomes a public relations campaign," the former D.A. said. "When it's in a court, you get disciplined thinking. We've won every time the thinking has been disciplined."

Lawton said he doesn't feel Tuesday's ruling resulted in a "happy day for anyone."

"I have no brief for the death penalty. If it were to evaporate tomorrow, it would suit me fine," he said. "On the other hand, it is a part of, a component of, Georgia's law and that's what I was sworn to uphold."

Lawton said he's against mob justice of any kind.

"Would it be different if all these people were agitating to have someone executed? The criminal justice system should cow in the face of that kind of mob action? No, we would all say no," he said. "That's not the way the system is supposed to operate."

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Filed under: Courts • Crime • Death Penalty • Georgia • Justice
soundoff (1,145 Responses)
  1. M in Oz

    Why bother having punishments at all if criminals are too dumb too innocent and "naive" to abide by them? Maybe criminals can think before they commit crimes knowing what the punishment is.

    September 21, 2011 at 12:25 am | Report abuse |
    • cja

      If you've ever had occasion to meet on of these kind of people, you'd know the problem that that act first and don't think. Yes, had he thought about it he would not have done it. but they habitually don't think before acting. People have the mistake of thinking what they would do in a situation. He is not you. That is why the death penalty does not work. It only works on people who stop and think about the result of their actions

      September 21, 2011 at 12:42 am | Report abuse |
    • M in Oz

      He not only shot one person, he shot another i.e. he knew what he was doing. He's a repeat offender (the worst type).

      September 21, 2011 at 12:45 am | Report abuse |
  2. Jennifer

    this man shot someone earlier in the night, the bullets from that shooting matched the cops shooting, and several witnesses who still see that man davis smirking while he shot that cop in the face and heart. They were beating a homeless person over a beer, these animals were caught and now justice is being served. And to all you people raising kids, this coudl be your kid if you don't raise your kids to be honest and work for what they have. This Davis guy terrorized his neighborhood for years, and no telling how many people's lives are/were saved when this animal got arrested

    September 21, 2011 at 12:29 am | Report abuse |
    • castel

      please use the word "animal" more, It will definitely help your argument you narcissistic shrew. Do some real research in the future before voicing your irrelevant opinion.

      September 21, 2011 at 3:12 am | Report abuse |
    • M in Oz

      True Castel, Mr Davis acted worse than an animal- you should wash out your keyboard with soap for even putting him in the same category as an animal.

      September 21, 2011 at 4:12 am | Report abuse |
  3. 4F

    This former prosecutor is one eloquent guy. I am glad he came forward finally after having to listen numb-nuts for 20 years. I really like how the prosecutor contrasts the public pressure for getting this murderer off the hook with a public that would gather to insist on justice. This prosecutor's adherence to the rule of law is commendable.

    September 21, 2011 at 12:31 am | Report abuse |
    • eville_11

      ditto on that comment.

      September 21, 2011 at 1:28 am | Report abuse |
  4. Dawn G

    The man who was responsible for the prosecution has no doubts even after discussing mixed up evidence and coerced testimony. And has the audacity to ask why it took 15-20 year given the support a defendant like Troy Davis gets in our system. And to question the Pope's integrity, William Sessions integrity, Jimmy Carter's integrity and Bob Barr's integrity like they all read about this in People magazine and jumped on the PR bandwagon without getting more information.

    The prosecutors, judges and parole board deserve judgement too – killing is wrong regardless of which side of the law you are on.

    September 21, 2011 at 12:31 am | Report abuse |
    • M in Oz

      Yet Troy Davis chose to kill knowing the punishment. Are you saying he's too stupid to know not to killsomeone else knowing what the punishment is? What coerced testimony are you talking about?

      September 21, 2011 at 12:35 am | Report abuse |
    • Tgallant

      Dawn, do you feel the same way about abortion? Is that different? Society does have the right to set establish rules of behavior and punishment. The defendant received support for the last 20 years, more support than the victim and the victim's family. The Pope, Mr Sessions, Bob Barr and Pres Carter are simply wrong and each has their own agenda.

      September 21, 2011 at 12:42 am | Report abuse |
    • Darrtl

      @ M n Oz. Your absolutely correct. With your rationality and faith in America's judicial system then I know u must share the same belief with the idiots who think Casey Anthony and O.J. Simpson were innocent right? Thank God from the heavens above those "innocent victims" were set free

      September 21, 2011 at 1:00 am | Report abuse |
    • M in Oz

      I don't think you were talking to me, I thought Casey Anthony and OJ should rot too.

      September 21, 2011 at 4:13 am | Report abuse |
  5. MR.Misagh Hatam


    With respect to passed soul .(Today`s pain needs today`s medicne and tommorow`s pain need`s tommorow`s medicne)Bahai writings.In material world no human being should allow her or himself to harm others.Please ask responsible autorities to over look on this matter.A 10 Years old case should be closed by now.we can not afford another death.

    September 21, 2011 at 12:37 am | Report abuse |
  6. KcCritic

    The prosecutor, IMO, is unbelieveable. The statement : "I have NO doubt he's guilty," Unless he witnessed Troy Davis shoot the officer, he's lost my confidence in the justice system. And, since he's so sure Davis is guilty, let him administer the drugs that will end Troy's life. I have "no doubt," he'd decline the invitation to revoke Troys' life... May Troy get a last minute stay...

    September 21, 2011 at 12:52 am | Report abuse |
  7. Rod C. Venger

    If this guy, as FORMER President Carter claims, was unfairly convicted based on the evidence, then how is a life sentence without parole in any way fair? If the guy was truly unfairly convicted...and I'm not at all sure what he means by "unfairly convicted", then neither the death penalty or life without parole would be a fair sentence, huh? Carter's thinking is indeed fuzzy. He need to retire to his peanut farm and be quiet. His illogic only embarrasses us all.

    September 21, 2011 at 12:56 am | Report abuse |
  8. Ejay

    The guy was convicted, and he has had all of his appeals, so the time for trying to create 'reasonable doubt' is over. He is guilty. Fry him quick.

    September 21, 2011 at 12:57 am | Report abuse |
  9. Ron C

    You people who want to make a villan out of the prosecutor are crazy. You can't deny that what he says is right. For over 20 years every judge and jury, racially mixed, mind you, has agreed with the prosecution. This is obviously true since Davis is on the eve of execution. If the independent triers of fact had agreed with you people then Davis wouldn't be on death row and you wouldn't have anything to protest.

    You can have whatever ill informed and ill considered opinion that you want to have, but in a quiet moment you really might want to consider the fact that Davis is actually guilty of the crimes of which he was convicted...namely, assulting Larry Young with a pistol, shooting Michael Cooper in the face, and murdering Officer McPhail – a former Army Ranger with a two year old daughter – by shooting him in the face and through the heart while McPhail's gun remained undrawn. You might also want to consider that the federal judge (a Clinton appointee, if that matters to you) who held an entire re-hearing to listen to all the supposed "new" evidence and to hear people recanting their testimony – all the stuff that you are so hyped up about – described it as "largely smoke and mirrors" that cast "minimal doubt" on his conviction.

    The standard for guilt is "beyond a REASONABLE doubt" and every trier of fact over the past 20 years that has actually taken the time to rigorously review the totality of the evidence in this case has concluded that this burden has been met. There is an enormous amount of evidence that points to his guilt that has never been disputed, and along the way the defense has made several transparent moves that the judges have seen through, such as failing to call Redd Coles – possibly the most critical witness in the entire case – as a witness at the rehearing, supposedly because they were unable to serve him with a subpoena the DAY before the hearing – but at that point, the rehearing had been set for MONTHS and the case had been going on for 20 YEARS. So was the defense either completely incompetent in waiting until the last day to serve the subpoena or did they had no interest in having Coles testify because they were afraid of what he would say? Seriously, are you that easily taken in?

    September 21, 2011 at 12:57 am | Report abuse |
    • SayWhat??

      Despite that you might be more informed about this case than I or others are, in my estimation you undermined your credibility in the very first paragraph. The notion that just because independent triers of fact agreed with the prosecution and kept Davis on death row, that it naturally and indisputably follows that he is indeed guilty is questionable when you consider that other death row inmates have been freed after evidence surfaced that exonerated them or at least cast enough doubt on their initial convictions to have them overturned. Thank goodness for Barry Scheck's Innocence Project or else they would likely still be languishing in prison, or worse. It's exactly because there are systemic problems in the justice system that the project exists in the first place so when people are skeptical, it's not necessarily because they are "easily taken in".

      I'm not even averse to the suggestion that Travis might be guilty but the prosecutor didn't do himself any favors in this interview. If anything, he just raised more questions for some of us. You'd think that after 20 years of presumably being frustrated at the criticisms and the apparently misleading PR campaign, that he would specify what some of the physical evidence was and not just mention its existence in passing. That doesn't exactly do much to allay the public's and media's concerns.

      September 21, 2011 at 2:12 am | Report abuse |
    • it was an inside job by another cop

      public defenders use the same process server as the prosecution, It's ca;;ed Judiciap Servises!
      If a Supeona is not served It is the Fault of the Court, Not The Defense.

      September 21, 2011 at 1:59 pm | Report abuse |
  10. infonomics

    Does the GBI Have DNA Evidence From The Bloody Black Shorts?

    From savannahnow . com / troy-davis / 2010-06-22 / bloodied-shorts-among-davis-hearing-evidence

    "After months of wrangling over evidence and legal issues, attorneys for the state's attorney general's office last week asked permission to submit Georgia Bureau of Investigation reports concerning "blood examination on pair of black shorts recovered from (Davis') mother's home on Aug. 19, 1989...They also asked to submit a report of DNA typing of the item."

    September 21, 2011 at 12:58 am | Report abuse |
  11. tony

    Well what do you expect him to say? If the man convicted is truly guilty, then the sentence should be carried out. However, some find the "facts" a little fuzzy. Sadly fuzzy don't count...after a conviction.

    September 21, 2011 at 1:03 am | Report abuse |
  12. Erik

    To anyone supporting the death penalty: you should volunteer yourself for execution immediately. Let's examine the logic of that statement: I presume you believe that we should execute anyone that is responsible for murdering an innocent. Since we inevitably execute innocent people due to the inability to know 100% for sure that everyone convicted of such a crime is guilty, *someone* is responsible for the murder of these innocents that are executed. I believe that the "someone" is you, the supporter of executions. So following your own beliefs you should be executed. Please report to the nearest Death Row and ask for your punishment to be administered post-haste.

    September 21, 2011 at 1:12 am | Report abuse |
    • M in Oz

      To you who oppose the death penalty, you should have Troy Davis live with you since jail isn't a deterrent either (since he committed this murder following other murderers who were sentenced to jail). Enjoy!

      September 21, 2011 at 4:10 am | Report abuse |
  13. Annexian

    Would he sign (assuming it could be done) that if Davis was found not guilty after his execution he'd face the death penalty himself for killing an innocent man? I doubt it, there's no justice, save "Justice by Points"

    The death penalty is unfair. The rich elite do not fear it. Granted, once they are past their "Bum Burning" wild oats prep school days they rarely directly kill anyone, but the damage they do to society is far greater. Oh, and what about "Treason"? Look up "The business Plot". Any group of "Anarchists" plotting as such during the day would literally have been hung in public.

    There should be a death penalty for any financial crime above $3 million. That is a "Statistical Death". Mmmaybe unlike at least one of Made-Off's victims no one kills themselves, but when the billionaire banker's son embezzles or -literally- "Plays the ponies" and loses millions, we all pay for it. They raise prices, they increase "Service" charges, they demand taxes/debt in our name to pay for these people.

    We need a Death penalty trial + RICO laws to prevent legal "Dream Teams" if a rich elite steals/embezzles/mis-manages funds of greater than $3 million.

    September 21, 2011 at 1:17 am | Report abuse |
    • Daniel-Mississippi

      Wow! That really sounds like justice to me. Of course, if such a law were passed the death penalty would be quickly abolished.

      September 21, 2011 at 1:44 am | Report abuse |
    • eville_11

      1. Suicide from bankruptcy is not murder, no matter who caused the bankruptcy. 2. Punishing monatry crimes involving embezzlement or swindle, or fraud or whatever by death for 3 million damages or more? why stop at three million, thats totally unfair that a cashier at walmart can stick twenties in her pocket everyday for 6 years and get off, but one wrong deal in a bank is your life? What kind of justice is that? Is that fair in your eyes? Why not just punish stealing with death.

      September 21, 2011 at 1:45 am | Report abuse |
  14. Joe

    Prosecutors never have any doubts about their decisions. It is what helps them sleep at night.

    September 21, 2011 at 1:25 am | Report abuse |
  15. T.rex

    This is a travesty of justice. The defendant is simply up upstanding citizen who is only guilty of attempted murder that night, and pistol whipping a homeless man. I say, set him free, and let him stay at your house.

    September 21, 2011 at 1:50 am | Report abuse |
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