By William S. Sessions
As Troy Davis faces his fourth execution date on Sept. 21, many may assume that lingering doubts about the case have been resolved. This is far from true, and the Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles — which has several new members since the Davis case last crossed its desks — has the daunting task of reviewing one of the most controversial cases the state has ever seen.
What quickly will become apparent is that serious questions about Davis’ guilt, highlighted by witness recantations, allegations of police coercion and a lack of relevant physical evidence, continue to plague his conviction. Last summer, an extraordinary hearing ordered by the U.S. Supreme Court to answer these questions instead left us with more doubt.
At Davis’ evidentiary hearing, witnesses called by Davis recanted trial testimony and made allegations of police pressure. Others testified that an alternative suspect had confessed to them that he committed the crime. One eyewitness testified, for the first time, that he saw this other suspect, a relative of his, commit the crime. Police witnesses for the state of Georgia alternatively asserted that the original trial testimony was the true version of events and that it was elicited without coercion.
Some of these same witnesses also had testified at Davis’ trial but have since recanted their trial testimony. The judge at the evidentiary hearing found their recantations to be unreliable and, therefore, found Davis was unable to “clearly establish” his innocence. The problem is that the testimony of these same witnesses, whom the judge had determined were less believable, had been essential to the original conviction and death sentence.
What the hearing demonstrated most conclusively was that the evidence in this case — consisting almost entirely of conflicting stories, testimonies and statements — is inadequate to the task of convincingly establishing either Davis’ guilt or his innocence. Without DNA or other forms of physical or scientific evidence that can be objectively measured and tested, it is possible that doubts about guilt in this case will never be resolved.
However, when it comes to the sentence of death, there should be no room for doubt. I believe there is no more serious crime than the murder of a law enforcement officer who was putting his or her life on the line to protect innocent bystanders. However, justice is not done for Officer Mark Allen MacPhail Sr. if the wrong man is punished.
In 2007, the Georgia State Board of Pardons and Paroles issued a stay of execution for Davis and took the admirable position that it 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.”
Because this case continues to be permeated by doubt, the Board of Pardons and Paroles’ stance continues to be the right one. In reality, there will always be cases, including capital cases, in which doubts about guilt cannot be erased to an acceptable level of certainty. The Davis case is one of these, and it is for cases like this that executive clemency exists.
Those responsible for clemency play a vital role in ensuring our legal system includes a measure of compassion and humanity. The death penalty should not be carried out, and Davis’ sentence should be commuted to life.
William S. Sessions is the former director of the FBI, a former federal judge and federal prosecutor.
Davis was convicted of the murder of a Savannah, GA police officer back in 1991 and was recommended for execution by jury. Since that trial, however, seven of the nine witnesses called by the prosecution have either taken back their testimonies or altered their stories. Coupled with the lack of a murder weapon and physical evidence linking Davis to the crime, activists have long protested his persecution and continue to rally for his innocence.
It’s been a long two decades for Davis on death row, and with the execution slated to occur in mere days, activists have stepped up to speak about his innocence. Along with Pope Benedict XVI and former President Jimmy Carter, Sessions is the latest of high-profile personalities to speak up for Davis’ freedom.
“Serious questions about Mr. Davis’ guilt, highlighted by witness recantations, allegations of police coercion and a lack of relevant physical evidence, continue to plague his conviction,” Sessions writes in an editorial published to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution Thursday. He adds that “pervasive, persistent doubts” exist regarding the supposed guilt of Davis, and that the execution, scheduled for September 21 at 7 pm, should be stopped.
Sessions served Director of the FBI under Presidents Ronald Regan, George HW Bush and Bill Clinton.
Activist Deirdre O’Connor has joined the ranks of Carter, Sessions and the rest in her support of Davis. Speaking to RT earlier this year, O’Connor said the case is an example of the court system searching out for a guilty party at all costs, regardless of innocence.
“It becomes less about who did it and less about the search for truth, and more about holding someone accountable,” O’Connor said to RT. She added that “because people of African descent and minorities and people who don’t have money are treated as expendable, it doesn’t matter if we get to the truth.”
More than 100 events are slated to take place internationally on Friday of this week as activists gather across the world to rally in support of Davis. More than a thousand are expected to attend a march in Atlanta, GA led by the NAACP, CBS News reports.