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. Dat Wabbit

    this POS will die. There's nothing his black racist and Leftist whining cop hating defenders can do about it. Times up, Game over Next martyr up!

    September 21, 2011 at 2:54 am | Report abuse |
    • Durrr

      Wow, you're such a close minded, ignorant person. No doubt you probably just like to say stupid things because you're craving attention or just genuinely dim-witted. And I don't doubt that you probably feel big and bad behind the relative safety of the screen your typing in front of. I'm so glad I don't have the misfortune of knowing you. Good day.

      September 21, 2011 at 3:55 am | Report abuse |
    • 7TX

      See page 8: White 19 year old racist runs over black man with F250 after beating him senseless with his 6 friends. ...I guess he's youre next martyr.

      September 21, 2011 at 3:57 am | Report abuse |
    • JEM

      OJ was innocent. Google "OJ Guilty but not of Murder".

      September 21, 2011 at 4:11 am | Report abuse |
  2. Paul

    it;s all fake ... the issue is not with his guilt or not, but is with the process and the unfairness of asking him to prove innocence. Completely absurd .. this prosecutor can try to convince people the guy is guilty .. but in the end, it only shows that he knows, this man should not be given the death penalty, because the prosecution proves did not meet the standard required to grant such sentence.
    Of course, he stirs away from that debate. Mr. Davis, you are a coward ... very simple.

    September 21, 2011 at 3:13 am | Report abuse |
    • Paul

      well, that was supposed to be "Mr Davis's prosecutor .. you are a coward ... " or a chicken ... anyway ... nobody cares

      September 21, 2011 at 3:16 am | Report abuse |
    • M in Oz

      He didn't need to prove his innocence. The prosecution needed to prove his guilt- and they did.

      September 21, 2011 at 4:26 am | Report abuse |
    • wjmknight

      The issue is not the process, it is the evidence.

      September 21, 2011 at 6:57 am | Report abuse |
    • trainwreck

      @m in oz/he did have to prove his innocence ib retrial..since the initil trial was so screwed they couldnt find out who was guilty so now davis dies without a cloud of certainty. georgia is murdering a man.murder.

      September 21, 2011 at 7:29 am | Report abuse |
  3. bmull

    "Fuzzy thinking" Jimmy Carter took graduate work in nuclear physics. These prosecutors have to convince themselves they're doing God's work so they can sleep at night. It was the same way with the Nazis. As for why Davis' lawyers delayed some of the appeals to the last minute, it's just good strategy because if you win you win, if you lose at least you bought your client some more time. The whole thing is a nightmare and hopefully after this is over Americans will have had their fill of blood for a while and we can have a serious discussion about whether this is something we should continue doing.

    September 21, 2011 at 3:16 am | Report abuse |
    • Richard

      as long as there is evil and evil people like Davis – yes, the death penalty works. people can twist this any way they want to – at the end of the day – davis has no alibi, and yes, there was substantial evidence – some physical some not...and what you have to know also is that there are witnesses to this crime(s) who have never doubted their word, never recanted their story and, oh by the way, they were also black.

      September 21, 2011 at 3:44 am | Report abuse |
  4. Schmoogalicious

    Wow, a prosecutor who refuses to admit he made a mistake in a wrongful conviction! Gotta be a first. If there's so much physical evidence linking Davis to the crime, how come Lawton didn't offer any?

    September 21, 2011 at 3:17 am | Report abuse |
    • M in Oz

      Wow, someone who assumes all convictions are false. BTW the prosecutor didn't find him guilty, a jury of his peers did.

      September 21, 2011 at 4:30 am | Report abuse |
  5. CharityG

    I am an African American. I was born and raised in the South. I am pro death penalty. HOWEVER, I do not believe that Troy Davis should be executed. I am not asking anyone to agree with me, I simply would like to state my opinion on the matter. This is more than a race or death penalty issue, as many have made it out to be. This comes down to "reasonable doubt". Without the murder weapon or a confession, and with the recanting of testimony from the witnesses, there is too much reasonable doubt for me personally. Of course I am a college student and not a legal guru like the majority of the posters, but I was raised to understand and respect American ideals and justice, and this case does not sit well with me. Race and region aside, innocent individuals have been executed in the past. I say that to say: please do not be so quick to jump down the throats of his supporters. We are not "cop killer supporters", and we don't have a secret vendetta against the white race. Some of us just do not see how killing a man who MIGHT be innocent benefits the family of the victim, the citizens of Georgia, or the American people in anyway.

    September 21, 2011 at 3:23 am | Report abuse |
    • Richard

      Nice post. In the beginning, everyone "might be innocent." But, what people don't realize and should after the DA spoke – there was substantial evidence that Davis is the shooter. There was never any reasonable doubt for the jury – otherwise, they would not have convicted. Davis has never given an alibi. NEVER. He did the first two crimes and then what – went home. And, at the end of the day – he tried to murder another person. For all practical purposes his intent was to kill that first victim. That being said, he was tried and convicted and received the penalty for the crimes he committed. The same evidence that convicted him on the first two crimes, convicted him on the 3rd.

      September 21, 2011 at 3:48 am | Report abuse |
    • 7TX

      Good post Charity. Believe me, theses sons of biitches are anything but legal gurus; they're just a s s holes with opinions. Don't pay any attention to the rhetoric because yes, they are just as stupid as they sound.

      September 21, 2011 at 4:03 am | Report abuse |
    • Sad

      Whether this man is guilty or not...he has been given every chance to prove his innocent. If he hasn't done it by now with all the famous and powerful people behind him he never will. The real victims are the man that was murdered and his family who lost the time to be with him. Someone murdered him. Put yourself in thier shoes, if it was your mother, father, sister or child would you show the same indignation at his death.

      September 21, 2011 at 4:20 am | Report abuse |
  6. JEM

    OJ did not do it. Google "OJ Guilty but not of murder".
    His son Jason committed the murders.

    September 21, 2011 at 4:15 am | Report abuse |
    • wjmknight

      I thought it was Elvis.

      September 21, 2011 at 6:56 am | Report abuse |
  7. African American

    Question is this a STATE law? what happens with the teenagers that just recently killed an african american male after getting drunk and wanting to kill some blacks? The one teen was posted a bond and house arrest, it's on camera and thats all the proof they need now they should be executed correct? and wasn't this police officer off duty out of uniiform?

    September 21, 2011 at 4:22 am | Report abuse |
    • M in Oz

      Did the prosecution ask for the death penalty? Were they able to ask for the death penalty in the place where that crime was committed? What does him being out of uniform have to do with anything? Should he have just walked away while Mr Davis was beating another person (because it wasn't he wasn't in uniform)?

      September 21, 2011 at 4:28 am | Report abuse |
  8. chillipepper

    It's cool to defend black people who kill cops.

    September 21, 2011 at 5:21 am | Report abuse |
    • SkekLach

      No, it's not 'cool'. It's simply the right thing to do because obviously a black man would never murder another person, so him being convicted of it can be nothing short of racist. After all, murder is a whites only thing.

      Did I get that right, liberals?

      September 21, 2011 at 9:59 am | Report abuse |
  9. Mavi Gozler

    I have to believe that if the prosecutor had one doubt that he might be innocent, he would not allow him to be put to death, and he would not go on TV and assert he's guilty. If he did such things and maintained that doubt, he would be guilty of murder, and I can't imagine he could live with himself. Someone show me that this prosecutor Lawton is a conscienceless b-st-rd, and I will dismiss what he says instantly.

    September 21, 2011 at 5:42 am | Report abuse |
    • wjmknight

      He's a lawyer, what more evidance do you need?

      September 21, 2011 at 6:55 am | Report abuse |
    • Brett

      I don`t think he has no conscience. But I do believe he may have flawed thinking. So too the family and so too the police at the time. The tunnel vision the police showed at the time of the crime is the same kind of problem which exists in the prosecution's case. They have never at any time been out to prove Troy's innocence and so they see things only from their view. As for prejudice and selfish career guided motives, sometimes we don`t know ourselves. Am I protecting the truth or am I protecting my position? Do my beliefs about young black men affect how I see a case like this. For example we can see a clear connection between Coles and Larry Young in evidence. There is little connection in evidence between Davis and Young. It seems police and the prosecution filled in the dots themselves probably with the idea that Davis was a wild young black man who ganged up with 2 other wild young black men and randomly bashed Larry young over the head because he enjoyed to beat homeless men. This brings up the completely false and proven false and disowned testimony of McQueen who stated that Davis beat Young over a drug money debt. The police obviously created this witness in order to fill the gaping hole that Davis had no said reason to hit Larry . What does Coles say about why Davis hit young over the head. Call him to the stand.

      September 21, 2011 at 7:41 am | Report abuse |
  10. Moncler

    Moncler
    Thanks to share! Thank you!

    September 21, 2011 at 6:26 am | Report abuse |
  11. Ron

    The prosecution didn't ask for the death penalty the jury recommended it

    September 21, 2011 at 6:36 am | Report abuse |
  12. Brett

    Spencer Lawton says he wants to uphold the law but appears to go beyond what the law requires of him in hi prosecution. Fair Trial Spencer? The punishment is Execution. It is irrelevant whether the process is fair or not. What matters is if the trial was conducted with accurate and adequate evidence to begin with
    An honest jury Spencer? Honesty of jurors is not the problem in this case, the problem is the faulty evidence with which they were presented. Fair outcome Spencer? Is this Baseball? Execution is that a fair outcome for anyone? All round? What does that mean. The physical evidence has been debunked. In particular the shell casing issue, you say it has been resolved. It has not been resolved. Primary witnesses against Troy Davis have recanted both their testimony about the McPhail shooting and the shooting at the party beforehand. It appears obvious that tying Davis to the prior shooting was a tactic by the police to strengthen their case. Give us the facts. And maybe you have something.

    What matters is whether the truth. Talk about what has been proven and we will listen. This is not a game of baseball, some win some lose.

    September 21, 2011 at 6:48 am | Report abuse |
  13. wjmknight

    Ex-DA Lawton sounds like a coward trying despartely to protect his reputation and willing to let an innocent man die in order to do so. He even admits he doesn't care for the death penalty one way or the other, but since its the alw, what's another victim, hey, he's just upholding the alw!

    If there is a hell for lawyers, I'm sure Mr. Lawton will find himself a seat..

    September 21, 2011 at 6:54 am | Report abuse |
  14. gung hoe

    Each and every one of you wanting troy murdered would have more trouble putting your dog down than to kill troy And in my mind makes you some sick racist S O Bs I know it cause I reckonise it in the way that you talk Ive been around it most of my life my whole family is racist .You see Iam a white mid 50s male that today I sincerly wish that I was black because Iam ashamed to be white but Iam ashamed of the whole white race

    September 21, 2011 at 7:06 am | Report abuse |
  15. Brett

    Spencer. Why do you tell us something is fair and just expect us to believe that. What is your take on the key issue of what shirt both Davis and Coles were wearing? Who was wearing white? Who was wearing yellow? Why has Davis not been asked what shirt he was wearing? Does Darrell Collins today stand by his statement that Davis hit Larry young over the head? Why did Davis hit Larry Young? We know why Cole might have? What motive did Davis have? What is Davis`s connection to Cole? How can you explain the idea that Davis hit Larry Young with a gun then ran when McPhail confronted him, turning to shoot the police officer. Meanwhile Cole is just standing innocently. Which witnesses and which testimony in particular supports that claim? How do you know it wasn`t Cole running? If you don`t know these facts how can you put either in prison at all. Should be near water tight. The state needed a conviction right and any of the two men would do?

    September 21, 2011 at 7:11 am | Report abuse |
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