Tuesday, March 18, 2008

I wrote this last July, when the Georgia Board of Pardons and Parole was considering Troy Davis' request for clemency:

How sure do you want to be?

Tomorrow evening, Georgia is set to execute Troy Davis, convicted of the 1989 murder of a police officer who ran to the aid of a beating victim. Troy Davis was among the crowd of bar patrons who heard the beating take place. He followed behind the scuffle, ahead of the murdered police officer. The man responsible for the beating, Sylvester Coles (who surely should have been the prime suspect for the murder as well), pointed the finger at Troy Davis as the shooter.

A total of 9 witnesses testified at Davis' trial that they saw him beating the homeless man, shoot the officer, or heard him confess later. 7 of those 9 witnesses have since recanted. An eighth was Sylvester Coles. 3 individuals who did not testify at Davis' trial have signed sworn affidavits that Coles confessed to the murder. No murder weapon or physical evidence tied Davis to the shooting.

Whatever your personal feelings on the death penalty may be, this case ought to give us all pause. The fact that anyone can defend executing a man on this evidence is frightening to me. Several jurors who voted to convict Davis and sentence him to death have since expressed their doubts about those votes. At trial, eyewitness identifications can be very powerful evidence. Yet that evidence is notoriously unreliable, especially in cases like Davis' involving strangers in chaotic incidents. In most jurisdictions, though, defense attorneys have been prohibited from putting on expert testimony to explain to juries how fallible eyewitnesses can be. Even more troubling is the reliance on jailhouse snitch testimony. Every jail in the country has a few residents who will say just about anything in a court of law in hopes of getting their own sentences reduced. Note that both sides in Davis' case were able to produce a few witnesses who heard two different people confess to the same shooting.

Some people would like to believe that Davis' case, where recanting witnesses are in abundance while physical evidence is nonexistent, are the exception. They cling to the misguided notion that guilt in most capital cases is crystal clear so they needn't worry themselves about answering the abolitionists' concern that an innocent individual may be put to death. But Davis' case, where guilt is anything but clear at this stage of the game, is all too common.

Maybe Georgia got lucky and got the right guy in spite of the lack of good evidence. I doubt it, but anything's possible. I do know, though, that we cannot continue to execute people while just closing our eyes and hoping we got it right. Hope and luck should have nothing to do with the premeditated decision to use the state's authority to end a life.

To those of you who support the death penalty, I ask how sure do you want to be about a defendant's guilt before you would be willing to pull the trigger? Can you ever be sure enough of a guilty verdict that comes from the same system that put Troy Davis on death row?

I thought this case seemed like a good one to try to reach anyone I knew who supported the death penalty because it is such a typical case where eyewitness testimony is fuzzy and unsure, physical evidence is non-existent, and 18 years doesn't produce any certainty. This week, the Georgia Supreme Court essentially affirmed Mr. Davis' conviction. I guess they're ok with hoping we got it right. (The justices are apparently not within the reach of my internet rants.) The opinion is remarkably succinct, with a lot of pat language and very little substance. I just will never understand how people can be so cavalier about blowing off a case with such serious flaws. They've cut and pasted this guy's life away.

I've been speaking out against the death penalty since I was a kid. My mom raised me to be an abolitionist from a young age. In 4th grade, jean jackets with lots of buttons were all the rage. While I had the standard cartoon characters and slogan buttons, I also had anti-death penalty buttons displayed on my jacket. I've debated and spoken out at rallys and dedicated my career to criminal defense. Days like today make it hard to be hopeful that we can ever win this battle. How are we ever going to win over the public if we can't even get a state supreme court to care? I'm not saying I'm going to quit the fight. I'm just feeling like the fight will be nothing more than me banging my head against a wall for the rest of my life. (Anyone remember the episode of "The Practice" where Bobby Donnell literally banged his head on the wall in the courtroom? That was the truest courtroom scene I've ever seen on t.v. or in a movie!)

The death penalty just makes me sick. The way states impose it, the way people justify it, the way courts create excuses not to look too deeply into these cases. It's crazy to me that death penalty supporters don't see how warped they've become. How can they not be rational enough to see that this case doesn't pass the sniff test. Something is rotten and it should be looked at more closely. The GA Court wouldn't even give Davis a hearing on all his new evidence. Just sick.

I have no idea how to communicate with people who see no problem with the result in this case. Which is kind of a problem since those are the people we need to convince to get this stupid penalty abolished. Have I mentioned that I really, really hate the death penalty?

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