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. eville_11

    The pope put in his two cents.... thats interesting, nothing against the pope, of course. But if the Holy Roman Catholic church put their word in and you still can't get a "life" card, you must have some bad karma.

    September 21, 2011 at 1:51 am | Report abuse |
  2. wowowwow

    What about the pigs that killed the homeless man in Fullerton. When do they get their lethal injection?

    September 21, 2011 at 1:53 am | Report abuse |
    • Faith

      Probably after they're tried and convicted?

      September 21, 2011 at 2:34 am | Report abuse |
  3. Beyond

    Prosecutors are far worse than the most dangerous of all serial killers. This is because they are serial killers, knowing full well they are putting to death some innocent people. This is no different than the Salem Witch trials. No physical evidence and shotty hearsay. America has even managed to start up debtors prison.

    Welcome back to the 1500s, it all seems so easy and cavalier till it's your ass they slaughter.

    September 21, 2011 at 2:01 am | Report abuse |
  4. Joe

    wake up Troy... its time.. to die...............

    September 21, 2011 at 2:06 am | Report abuse |
  5. Steve

    You're right, Mr. Prosecutor, you won. Like Lebron dunking on a 4 year old and then screaming "AND ONE" in their face, you've won. Somebody's gonna die tomorrow because you "did your job." Yup, you won.

    So when do we get Officer MacPhail back?

    September 21, 2011 at 2:15 am | Report abuse |
    • Martina

      Right on! Shame,shame on him ! I am disgusted watching what's going on here! My prayers to Troy Davis and I won't back down!

      September 21, 2011 at 2:30 am | Report abuse |
  6. Rick S.

    This is appalling. It's sad and so troubling how this is still happening in 2011. There is WAY too much doubt in this case. You cannot bring back someone after they are put to death. There was only a SMALL slither of doubt in the Casey Anthony case. There is HUGE doubt in this case. She walks. He dies.

    September 21, 2011 at 2:19 am | Report abuse |
  7. Martina

    Are you serious ?

    September 21, 2011 at 2:20 am | Report abuse |
  8. edward c. stengel

    I wonder what he'll have for his last meal. I've noticed that many condemned men will have a cheeseburger, french fries, french fried onion rings (for some reason they like to have onion rings), a green vegeable, soda pop, and often pie a la mode for dessert. Timothy McVeigh had 2 pints of chocolate mint ice cream. That was a most unusual request.

    September 21, 2011 at 2:34 am | Report abuse |
    • it was an inside job by another cop

      dodo bird

      September 21, 2011 at 2:13 pm | Report abuse |
  9. Faith

    I have to say, the man raises some valid and compelling points. Witnesses recanted some 15/20 years later...the prosecution never got a chance to talk with them so I assume the recanting was not done via a legal means but via a social one. The only thing I am having a hard time with his is claim that the statements about there being no evidence are untrue - where is his proof of that? He couldn't substantiate the argument. I will however grant him one Internet for saying what I've been thinking: where does the Pope get off thinking he's going to comment on the justice system in Georgia from Rome?

    September 21, 2011 at 2:38 am | Report abuse |
  10. Anthony

    He was tried and convicted (several times) according to the law. If you dislike the results that much, feel free to campaign to have the law changed, or to move to another country where the laws are different.

    September 21, 2011 at 2:39 am | Report abuse |
  11. THE REAL TRUTH

    Lawton stated in this interview that they had physical proof against Troy and lied to the public. He never said what that proof was so i'm going to tell you. A pair of black shorts with blood on them were found at Troy's mother's house in her dryer the day after the cop's murder. Troy lived there with his mother, father, sister (who was about to go into the military) and other sister. Who did the shorts belong to? Was one of the sisters having a menstrual cycle? MORE IMPORTANTLY to this day the shorts have never been tested to see if the cop's DNA is on them. I believe in the death penalty but until these shorts are tested this man has no business being executed. LAWTON IS A LIAR! HE DIDN'T TELL YOU ABOUT THE SHORTS THAT WERE NEVER TESTED FOR DNA WHICH IS SUPPOSED TO BE HIS SMOKING GUN.

    September 21, 2011 at 2:40 am | Report abuse |
  12. Mike H

    I guess I'm not surprised that a bloodthirsty prosecutor won't admit he made a mistake even though seven out of nine of his witnesses say they lied. Even if they all lied this creep would say it doesn't matter as long as the jury heard and believed the lies that's all that counts. Would he have initially pursued the case with no physical evidence and only two witnesses, neither of which actually saw the shooting ? I doubt it. Lawyers don't care about the truth, only winning.

    September 21, 2011 at 2:48 am | Report abuse |
  13. SeauxGood

    Once again, law enforcement puts closing a case ahead of actually SOLVING it.

    September 21, 2011 at 2:49 am | Report abuse |
  14. THE REAL TRUTH

    Also, Lawton never mentioned that Sylvester "Redd" Coles was at the same party as Troy Davis. lawton didn't mention that "Redd" and Michael (who got shot in the face) hated each other. Lawton didn't mention that "Redd" was seen with a .38 by several people that night. Lawton didn't mention that Benjamin Gordon told a cop he saw "Redd" shoot the cop. This has got to be cover-up of the century...bigger than Watergate.

    September 21, 2011 at 2:50 am | Report abuse |
  15. ahetch

    this kind of thing has happened many times in the past and will happen many times in the future. The prosecutor finds someone that he 'thinks' is the killer and builds his case around the wrong man. He will do anything to get the convict found guilty.
    And even if there is evidence to the contrary, it will not be allowed. If the convict is later found not-guilty,and let out, the prosecution will never admit their error.
    Sorry state of affairs.

    September 21, 2011 at 2:52 am | Report abuse |
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