July 13, 2007
A chance of innocence
State parole board must intervene in death row inmate's case
Last-minute appeals by lawyers to spare the life of a death row inmate are
common. And sometimes the claims made on behalf of inmates strain
Others are much more than that. Sometimes, they are legitimate efforts to
stop the state from executing someone who could very well be innocent. The
case of Troy Anthony Davis, scheduled to come before the state Board of
Pardons and Paroles on Monday, is one of those. It would be a grave
injustice if Davis is killed by lethal injection next week.
Davis, 38, was convicted of the brutal murder of Mark Allen MacPhail, a
young Savannah police officer responding to a fight in a parking lot in
1989. Without substantive physical evidence - no gun, no DNA - prosecutors
relied entirely on the testimony of witnesses. They found nine who
implicated Davis. A jury found him guilty. He has been on death row since
1991, but Davis has maintained his innocence from the day he was arrested.
After his legal appeals were exhausted, however, significant developments
occurred that demand closer examination:
- Seven of the original nine witnesses against Davis have renounced or
contradicted their trial testimony. An alarming number now claim they were
intimidated by the police. Of the two witnesses who have not recanted their
testimony, one was implicated by two other witnesses during the trial as
MacPhail's killer, and by four new witnesses since then.
- Davis is caught in an untenable procedural bind. Because of a 1996 law
aimed at speeding up death penalty appeals, federal and state courts have
ruled they can't consider new evidence in a death penalty case if the
defendant should have brought it to the court's attention during the appeals
process. But in the Davis case, most of the witnesses didn't recant their
testimony until years later. Moreover, to get the courts to reopen the case,
the defendant must be able to show that given the new evidence, no
reasonable juror would convict him. That's an impossibly high standard.
- Some of the witnesses didn't get a chance to recant because the initial
appeal in the Davis case was handled by attorneys from an underfunded state
defender's agency that lacked the resources to track witnesses down and
investigate what they told police, as opposed to what they testified to at
The case has generated an exceptional amount of interest. Groups and
individuals opposed to the death penalty support Davis, including Amnesty
International, Nobel Prize winner Desmond Tutu, Sister Helen Prejean and
Harry Belafonte. Archbishop Wilton Gregory has asked Catholics in the
Atlanta archdiocese to pray for clemency for Davis.
The case has also drawn the attention of the Constitution Project, a
bipartisan group that seeks consensus on difficult legal issues. William S.
Sessions, a former federal judge and FBI director under three presidents, a
death penalty advocate and a member of the project's Death Penalty
Initiative, has researched Davis' case and strongly believes more
investigation is needed.
Over the years, 124 death row inmates have been released from state prisons
after evidence proved their innocence. Police, prosecutors, judges,
witnesses and juries make mistakes, but those mistakes can never be reversed
once a death sentence is carried out.
The Board of Pardons and Paroles is not being asked to set Troy Anthony
Davis free. But in the name of justice it should allow him to make a new
case for his innocence.
Source : Atlanta Journal-Constitutio