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Will Georgia Execute a Man Despite Doubts About His Guilt?

Posted: 04/28/11 10:15 AM ET

By Brian Evans, Death Penalty Campaigner.

When it issued a temporary stay of execution for Troy Anthony Davis in 2007, the Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles wrote that they would "not allow an execution to proceed in this State unless and until its members are convinced that there is no doubt as to the guilt of the accused." This "no doubt" approach reflects a common-sense value shared by all of us (or at least most of us), regardless of our feelings about the death penalty: we should never put someone to death when there is a chance they might be innocent.

Now, four years and two more stays of execution later, Troy Davis may soon face a new execution date (it would be his fourth), and doubts about his guilt have not gone away.

Troy Davis was convicted and sentenced to death 20 years ago for the murder of Savannah police officer Mark MacPhail at 1:00 a.m. on a summer night in a dark parking lot. Shortly after the crime, a man who had been at the scene, Sylvester Coles, approached police and pointed them in the direction of Troy Davis. A heated investigation followed, as Savannah police sought to bring to justice the person who had killed one of their own.

A lot of heat, but not much light.
The murder weapon was never found, and the only evidence available at the trial were witnesses and some shell casings which did not link Davis, or anyone else, to the crime. Since the trial, most of the witnesses have recanted their trial testimony against Davis, many alleging that police pressured them into making false statements. And the meager shell casing evidence has since been discredited by a ballistics expert.

There was a special evidentiary hearing in Savannah last summer, ordered by the U.S. Supreme Court, at which Troy Davis was given the chance to present his innocence claim. But this was not a new trial, with a presumption of innocence. It was just a hearing where the burden was on Davis to "clearly establish" his innocence to a standard presiding judge William T. Moore, Jr. called "extraordinarily high."

At the hearing several of the trial witnesses testified that they had falsely implicated Troy Davis, reiterating their allegations of police coercion. Other witnesses testified that Sylvester Coles had confessed to them that he, not Davis, committed the crime. And one witness, a relative of Coles, testified the he actually saw Sylvester Coles shoot the Officer MacPhail.

But judge Moore found that these witnesses lacked credibility, even though their credibility had been essential to obtaining Davis' original conviction. The case "may not be ironclad," the judge wrote, but, according to the standard required by the court, Troy Davis did not prove his innocence.

The Troy Davis case has come down to the question of whether the witnesses were telling the truth at trial, or whether they are telling the truth now. That's it. Without any scientifically testable evidence, this question is impossible to answer convincingly. It's a judgment call, and while making such calls is obviously what judges do, we should require more certainty before we inflict the ultimate and irreversible punishment of death.

That is why we have executive clemency.
It is a failsafe to prevent potential miscarriages of justice when the courts cannot. Doubts about the innocence or guilt of Troy Davis will persist, unless evidence emerges that is more definitive than shaky witness testimony. The Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles should uphold its "no doubt" standard, grant clemency, and commute Troy Davis' death sentence permanently.

Amnesty International, along with partners like the NAACP, has been working hard to make sure this happens. For 50 years, Amnesty International has been organizing letter-writing to governments to prevent grave injustices. Cases like Troy Davis' demonstrate why the state cannot be trusted with the power to take human life and why the death penalty, rather than providing justice, creates more injustice.

Now, Amnesty is seeking to generate 1 million Tweets for Troy Davis, calling on all supporters to Tweet twice a week until clemency is granted. Tweeters should use the hashtag #TroyDavis and direct people to the online petition for clemency at bit.ly/troypetition.

 

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