Wednesday, 14 November 2007

Troy Davis, Justice, and the Death Penalty

Innocence Matters!

So proclaims the website dedicated to the exoneration of one death row inmate in Georgia. Whether one believes that the death penalty is ever appropriate, or in the innocence or guilt of that particular inmate, we should all agree that indeed innocence does matter.

As we examine the case of Troy Anthony Davis, we should care very much whether an innocent man was convicted of a crime which substantial evidence seems to indicate was committed by someone else. It is also worth examining several broader questions. Does the desire to gain convictions skew investigations to buoy the first plausible solution to the exclusion of other possibilities? Once convicted of a crime, are the barriers to considering continued claims or evidence of innocence too steep? Should the certainty of guilt be even higher for the application of the death penalty? When if ever is the death penalty appropriate, or as the American Bar Association claims, do inconsistencies and flaws in our system of justice warrant a moratorium on capital punishment?

Ironically, it may be his death row status which ends up triggering a new trial for Davis, with the possibility of exoneration. Yesterday, the Georgia Supreme Court heard arguments for and against granting such a trial, with an expected decision to be rendered sometime early next year. This observer sees a real need for re-examination of the process for granting new trials in cases where either faulty investigations, over zealous prosecution, coerced testimony, recantations, or new evidence casts doubt on former convictions - whether or not the death penalty is involved. That doesn't mean opening every case where an inmate claims innocence, or making it too easy for outside organizations to force trials when the case is not strong. But justice is not served by keeping the innocent behind bars in the name of having "someone" pay for the crime, upholding the standing of police or prosecutors, or appearing tough on crime.

The Innocence Project is doing great work in using DNA testing from former convictions to exonerate many who have been unjustly imprisoned. But physical evidence is not always available, as in the case of Davis, and common sense suggests that wrongful convictions are at least as high in such cases where eye-witness testimony is likely to have played a major role.

I am not claiming to know that Troy Davis is innocent. My window on the case is limited to what I've heard on radio, read online, and heard in conversation with Laura Moye, who is deputy director of Amnesty International's Southern regional office. I acknowledge that I am a long way away, and may have been swayed by the fact that "Davis' supporters were good at 'marketing' their cause", as DA assistant David Lock told Georgia's justices. Still, based on what I have learned, it seems more plausible that alternative suspect Sylvester "Redd" Coles is the actual perpetrator. And it is very difficult to accept that a new trial should not be granted in light of the recantations of 7 of the 9 original eyewitnesses. From a Savannah Morning News account
"If the prosecution witnesses are recanting to that extent and that they possibly perjured themselves, then the Supreme Court is doing the right thing [in considering whether to grant a new trial]," said William "Rusty" Hubbarth, vice president of the pro-death-penalty Justice For All in Austin, Texas. "I have never heard of a case like this where you have five or six witnesses recanting."

A Tragic Night

When off duty police officer Mark MacPhail responded to a commotion near a downtown Savannah Burger King at 1 AM on Aug. 19th of 1989, he discovered a homeless man, Larry Young, being pistol whipped. Before he had a chance to draw his pistol from his holster, Larry Young's attacker, seeing the officer's badge, shot and killed him. Witnesses hearing the shots saw three men fleeing the scene. This account, one of a series of five recent articles about the case appearing the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, gives what appears to be a fair summary about what is known about the sequence of events that evening, and what Troy Davis and Redd Coles each claim to have occurred. Davis' proximity to the site of two shootings on the same evening understandably directed suspicion his way, but the wantonly murderous behavior he is accused of, seems to fit better with Coles prior and subsequent behavior than with that of Davis. And two of the recanting witnesses have signed affidavits declaring that Coles was also present at the party earlier in the evening near to where another man was shot and injured. Why would Davis brutally assault the homeless man, when even Coles admitted that it was he who had the initial argument (over a beer) with him? Why did Coles show up at the police station with a high paid lawyer to finger Davis in the crime? Why did Davis so readily return from his subsequent trip to Atlanta when he discovered he was the subject of a manhunt, unless he felt confident that he would be absolved of the charges.

7 of 9 Recant

But the most compelling case for granting a new trial comes from the sworn affidavits recanting earlier testimony which implicated Davis, and suggesting police coercion in obtaining that testimony. The unfortunate homeless man who was the victim of the beating was detained by police for over an hour when he most needed medical attention. In pain and somewhat inebriated he finally signed a statement written by police without reading it, in order to gain his own release. Reading the details of each recantation, it is difficult to believe prosecutor's claims that Davis' family was able to pressure all of these witnesses to recant earlier testimony, risking perjury, not to mention the wrath of the still free Coles, simply out of sympathy for a man on death row.

Troy Anthony Davis has been in prison now for 18 years. That alone would be an extraordinary sentence for what, if his story is true, may have been a case of keeping bad company and using poor judgment in the aftermath of gunfire. And yet a new trial is all he currently is asking for.

The appeals process has been yet another story in this case, where procedural reasoning seems to trump new reasonable doubt, whether in the state's habeas court denial of his petition in 1977, or the impact of provisions of the Anti-terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 signed into law by Clinton, which restricted the power of federal courts to correct constitutional error in criminal cases, or the Federal 11th Circuit Court's denial of Troy's appeal in 2006, or the U.S. Supreme Court's refusal to hear his case.

This case has now gotten strong media attention, yet it is still not clear that a defendant who likely deserves at least a second trial will get one. How many other cases languish in obscurity where innocent prisoners will never receive a fair trial when they were originally denied one? In many cases - hopefully a large majority of them - our justice system where one is innocent until proven guilty works beautifully. We have a justice system which on the whole is worth fighting for, and is far better than that which existed in earlier centuries, or does exist in many places around the world. But two factors which stand as a threat to proper justice remain the inordinate influence of money and connections on the process, and the growing simplistic tough on crime attitude which vilifies the accused too early in the process, values numbers of convictions over certainty of justice, and turns a blind eye all too often on instances of police or prosecutorial misconduct.

Process matters. Complexity matters. Motive matters. Truth matters. Certainty matters.

Innocence matters.

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