In 1991 Troy Davis was convicted and sentenced to death for the murder of Georgia police officer Mark Allen MacPhail. The case against him rested on the testimony of nine witnesses – no physical evidence ever linked Davis to the crime and the murder weapon was never found. Davis has always maintained his innocence.
Since the trial, seven of the nine witnesses have recanted their testimony, with several saying they were coerced into giving it by police. “They wouldn’t stop questioning me until I told them what they wanted to hear. So I did,” said one. Of the two remaining witnesses, one is the principal alternative suspect in the murder, who nine other witnesses have implicated. Nonetheless, Troy Davis has not been granted a new hearing to present the new evidence of his innocence or examine the reliability of the witness testimony that was used to convict him. The courts have cited technicalities – such as the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996, which restricts the rights of state and federal prisoners to file habeas corpus appeals – in denying him such a hearing.
Is Troy Davis innocent? I don’t know. But for the state to execute a man when such serious questions remain on that issue illustrates the grave flaws with the death penalty system.
Since the reinstatement of the death penalty in 1973, 132 people in 26 states – including 6 here in Pennsylvania – have been released from death row due to evidence of their innocence. At least eight men with strong claims of innocence have actually been executed. A study by the Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern Law School found that the most common reason for wrongful conviction in the 86 death row cases studied was eyewitness error, resulting from confusion or faulty memory. Other causes included government misconduct (by both the police and the prosecution), junk science (mishandled evidence or use of unqualified “experts”), snitch testimony (often given in exchange for a reduction in sentence), false confessions (resulting from mental illness or retardation, as well as from police torture), and other factors, such as hearsay or questionable circumstantial evidence.
Those who see the system up close – including a Texas DA who calls himself “no bleeding heart” – have started to recognize the problem with imposing the death penalty when clearly our processes for determining guilt and innocence are fallible. It’s time for the public to follow suit.
Becca in Harrisburg
1. Send an email to the governor of Georgia asking for clemency for Troy Davis
2. Ask your state representative to support Pennsylvania Senate Bill 628, which would ban the imposition of the death penalty in cases where the defendant is mentally retarded and require that the determination of mental retardation be made by a judge before the start of the trial