Sanity Injection

Injecting a dose of sanity into your day’s news and current events.

On death penalty case, ignorance is no ground for appeal

Posted by sanityinjection on October 22, 2008

AP reports that the head of the European Parliament has blasted the US for the impending execution Monday of death row inmate Troy Davis. Of course, the EU views all executions as violations of human rights, so they’re not particularly interested in the actual facts of the case. Undeniably, however, Davis’ case has attracted a lot of attention. Notables who have opined at one point or another in favor of reconsideration of Davis’ case include Amnesty International, Pope Benedict, Congressman John Lewis, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Harry Belafonte, former FBI director William Sessions, Sister Helen Prejean, Al Sharpton, former President Jimmy Carter and former Congressman Bob Barr. As a result of these pleas, Davis has already received two stays of execution, one of which was granted by an emergency session of the Supreme Court.

One has to wonder, however, if the luminaries listed above have ever taken the time to familiarize themselves with the facts of Davis’ case. While at first glance there appears to be reasonable doubt that Davis committed the murder, closer inspection of the type the Georgia courts have engaged in undermines that doubt.

To summarize: Troy Davis was convicted in 1991 of the 1989 shooting death of police officer Mark MacPhail. All parties agree that Davis, his friend Sylvester Coles, and a third friend assaulted a homeless man, Larry Young, and MacPhail responded to stop the attack. MacPhail was then shot twice, the second shot a fatal one at point blank range. No murder weapon was ever found, but ballistics on the bullets recovered showed them to be similar to the one which Davis allegedly fired in shooting another man earlier that day. At trial, Davis and Coles each claimed the other was the killer, but multiple witnesses identified Davis as the shooter. 

Since his trial, Davis has tried virtually every possible means to have his conviction overturned or retried. For example, Davis claimed racial bias in the jury selection process, despite the fact that the jury which convicted him was composed of seven blacks and five whites in a county with a 33% black population (Davis is black.) In recent years, Davis has presented evidence suggesting that most of the witnesses at the original trial have recanted their testimony. Two new witnesses have also come forward claiming that Coles confessed to the murder.

Because the witness testimony was central to the conviction, Davis’ argument that the recantations would make a big difference in his conviction seems reasonable at first glance. In March of this year, however, the Georgia Supreme Court considered this evidence and denied Davis’ request for a new trial. It wasn’t until I read the Court’s decision that I understood why. Most of the recantations were actually witnesses claiming they no longer remembered what had happened. The hearsay testimony regarding Coles’ alleged confessions was deemed unreliable because of Coles’ history of wanting people to think he is a tough guy. Further, the fact that none of these supposedly new facts was brought to light until 8 years after the murder took place, with most not until 12-14 years afterward – despite the fact that the witnesses were all available to the defense during the original trial. The Court decision does an excellent job of explaining why the “new” evidence is insufficient both from a legal and from a logical viewpoint:

In any death penalty conviction, there is always a small possibility that the defendant is in fact innocent. In this case, however, it seems clear that even if Davis was not the murderer of MacPhail, he was clearly guilty of a host of other crimes including armed robbery, assault and battery, and attempted murder. He clearly was a violent and dangerous individiual who had no problem with the pistol-whipping of a helpless man over a can of beer, whether he himself held the pistol or not. It is hard for me to view such an individual as a “tragic victim of a flawed justice system.” If, after almost 20 years, he has not been able to come up with any solid evidence to exonerate himself, how much longer must justice be stayed?

Read the Georgia Supreme Court’s opinion and decide for yourself. And when you do, congratulate yourself that you are more educated on the topic than those who would presume to order a sovereign government around based on little more than their celebrity status.


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