Davis' Pending Execution Will Stain America
The world pleas came from far and wide for a stay of execution for accused
Savannah, Georgia cop killer Troy Anthony Davis. Davis's defenders were
vehement that if Davis dies, the state would have killed an innocent man.
There was no smoking gun proof that Davis was innocent beyond a reasonable
doubt. But there was no murder weapon, physical evidence linking the
former Police Athletic League coach to the murder, and 7 of the 9
witnesses that claimed Davis was the triggerman recanted their testimony.
In what's become an all too disturbing pattern in the dubious convictions
of men like Davis, the witnesses claimed they were scared stiff by police
coercion, harassment, and threats into finger pointing Davis as the
Davis faced two other towering problems in his fight to stay out of the
executioner's chamber, and that's that there was no more money to file
appeals and that the right to file more appeals has been sharply
restricted. In 1996, when Congress passed, and Clinton signed, legislation
that toughened the death penalty to combat terrorist acts, it reduced
appeals and made it harder to get new trials. The year before that,
Congress slashed millions in funds for post conviction public interest
legal interest groups to help inmates such as Davis file appeals.
Davis, though, is hardly the first case in which doubts have been raised
whether a possibly innocent person has been executed. Amnesty
International, Human Rights Watch, and a scattering of federal appeals
judges have repeatedly said that some possibly innocent persons have been
executed since capital punishment was reinstated in 1976. A team of
university researchers have named more than two-dozen cases in which men
have been executed that may have been innocent.
In each case, there have been blatantly chilling similarities. The
Innocence Project has noted that overzealous and untruthful prosecutors
have suppressed, fabricated, and destroyed evidence, employed lying
jailhouse snitches, and untruthful witnesses. Many of the cases have been
riddled with racial bias. The condemned killer was black or Latino and
their alleged victim was white. Davis is an African-American. When defense
attorneys appeal these tainted convictions, the courts almost always
dismiss their appeals on the grounds that the prosecutor committed
"harmless errors" that didn't affect the outcome of the case.
The Texas execution of Ruben Cantu in 1993 for a murder he allegedly
committed as a teen was a classic case of how a possibly innocent man can
be executed. The case had all the slipshod legal ingredients -- a
jailhouse informant's testimony, a dubious witness, a threadbare defense,
and sloppy police investigation. It took a decade to get the truth out,
but Cantu was declared probably innocent when the surviving victim
recanted his identification and an inmate involved in the killing signed a
confession that Cantu did not commit the crime.
In Cantu's case, and the cases of the other possibly innocent condemned
men executed, state and federal appeals courts routinely rejected their
appeals. But some judges publicly and privately expressed doubts not about
the actual innocence of the men, but whether prosecutors and courts
followed proper legal procedures and the defendants got a fair trial.
Their doubts were not enough for them to overturn their convictions, or
stay their executions. In every doubtful case, prosecutors hotly denied
that any of the men executed were innocent.
Despite the questionable executions, no prosecutor, or government
official, has ever officially said that an innocent prisoner has been
executed. But some officials and judges have strongly hinted and warned
that it could happen. In 1997, the chair of the House Judiciary Committee
praised the system of legal checks and balances in place to insure that
the rights of condemned killers are fully protected but admitted that
there was no ironclad guarantee that an innocent person could not be put
In 2000, Boston federal appeals court Judge Mark L. Wolf, in a case
involving a Massachusetts man charged with multiple murders, sent a shock
wave through the federal judiciary when he flatly said that there was
strong evidence that some innocent persons may have been executed. He did
not name the names of those who he thought may been innocent, but pointed
to the dozens of men that have been freed from death row based on DNA
tests, the recanting of damning testimony by witness and jailhouse
informants, and other evidence.
The Justice Department stuck to its guns and insisted that it went
strictly by the legal book to insure the fair and consistent application
of the death penalty, and there were no slip-ups in that an innocent man
could or had been executed, at least by the feds.
Even if Davis evades execution, there are many others who were possibly
innocent that weren't so fortunate. That's a terrible stain on America's
legal books that can't be easily erased.
(source: New America Media Associate Editor Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an
author and political analyst. His new book The Latino Challenge to Black
America: Towards a Conversation between African-Americans and Hispanics
(Middle Passage Press and Hispanic Economics New York) in English and
Spanish will be out in October)