September 25, 2011

COMMENTARY: Troy Davis was guilty of murder

Charles Lane

Troy Davis' execution is nothing to celebrate. The only satisfaction it offers, if any, is the grim kind that comes from knowing a killer got his just deserts.

Of course, to opponents of the death penalty, every execution is an outrage. Davis' supporters say this one is worse than that: the deliberate state killing of a man despite evidence that he is innocent.

If they're right, Georgia and all of America should be ashamed.

But they're wrong: Troy Davis was guilty.

How can I be so sure? After all, former President Jimmy Carter, Pope Benedict XVI and former FBI director William Sessions backed Davis. Prosecution witnesses have recanted their testimonies; scant physical evidence tied Davis to the crime.

But it's one thing to argue your case in the court of public opinion; it's quite another to do so in a real court, with sworn testimony offered and cross-examined by both sides.

And when Davis had that opportunity, in a special Supreme Court-ordered hearing last year, the judge rejected his claim, declaring flatly that "Davis is not innocent."

This saga began the night of Aug. 19, 1989, in Savannah, Ga. Police officer Mark MacPhail, moonlighting as a Burger King security guard, rushed to break up a mugging in the parking lot. When the ensuing clash ended, MacPhail lay mortally wounded by gunfire.

A number of witnesses identified Davis as the man who stood over MacPhail and fired before fleeing. Based on that testimony, a jury of seven blacks and five whites convicted him and sentenced him to death in 1991.

Davis admitted being at the scene but insisted someone else had pulled the trigger. In the years since his trial, he submitted affidavits from seven witnesses who inculpated him but later said their testimony was either mistaken or coerced by police.

Davis' appeals, state and federal, failed -- until August 2009, when the Supreme Court handed him a dramatic victory. Citing a "substantial risk of putting an innocent man to death," the court overrode usual limits on death-penalty appeals, granted a stay of execution and ordered a federal court in Georgia to weigh Davis' evidence of innocence.

Chief Judge William T. Moore of the U.S. District Court in Savannah, an appointee of President Bill Clinton, convened the hearing in June 2010 -- whereupon Davis' case crumbled. Much of his "new" evidence had already been heard by the original trial jury. Some of his witnesses fared badly on cross-examination, while prosecution testimony stood up.

Davis' lawyers declined to put two of the purported recanting witnesses on the stand, though they were available -- one even waited outside the courtroom. Moore quite logically found these omissions "suspicious."

Davis' lawyers did not ask the "real" shooter to testify; nor did Davis, with his life on the line, take the stand. Perhaps this reflected his experience at trial, where he told his story to the jury, and the jury did not believe it.

In August 2010, Moore issued a ruling, in which he picked apart Davis' factual claims one by one, concluding, "The vast majority of the evidence at trial remains intact."

Davis' supporters say Moore unfairly required Davis to present "clear and convincing" proof of innocence, a high standard.

But Moore's emphatic findings implied Davis' case wouldn't have passed any test; it was, the judge wrote, "largely smoke and mirrors."

I believe Moore because he is an impartial authority who reviewed all the evidence in an appropriate forum -- and for whom a ruling against Davis was not necessarily the path of least resistance.

No one in Moore's position would want an innocent man's death on his conscience.

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