x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

Troy Davis execution triggers debate on US judicial system

Davis, who convinced hundreds of thousands of people, but not the justice system, of his innocence, was executed late on Wednesday after a failed eleventh-hour plea asking the Supreme Court to stop his execution, having been found guilty of murdering an off-duty policeman, in 1989. His final words before receiving a lethal injection were: 'I am innocent.'

SAVANNAH, UNITED STATES // Did Troy Anthony Davis deserve to be put on Georgia's death row? The answer depends on one's faith in the US judicial system and its many procedural hoops.

Davis, the condemned inmate who convinced hundreds of thousands of people, but not the justice system ,of his innocence, was executed late on Wednesday after a failed eleventh-hour plea asking the Supreme Court to stop his execution.

He was found guilty of murdering Mark MacPhail, an off-duty policeman, in 1989. His final words before receiving a lethal injection were: "I am innocent."

During his trial, witnesses recanted what they had sworn to police, and jurors even questioned their verdict. Activists, some of them death-penalty supporters, protested by the thousands that he was innocent - or at least that guilt was hopelessly shrouded in reasonable doubt.

But do those "supposed recantations", says the law professor Michael Mears, constitute a mountain of evidence? Or were they, as prosecutors claim, just a molehill, fabricated by death penalty opponents?

A close review of Davis' two-decade legal odyssey sheds some light, if not a clear-cut resolution.

It suggests that a good deal of the witnesses' hedging on what they had seen the night of the murder was not new - that jurors had heard it at trial. Davis' attorneys missed "opportunities" that might have changed the outcome of appeals.

Finally, executive clemency is meant to be a guard against unfair trials and shoddy defence work - but that fail-safe failed here, critics say.

Professor Mears, an associate professor at Atlanta's John Marshall Law School, feels that Davis did not belong on death row for the slaying of MacPhail. But after reading much of the transcript and the "so-called affidavits", he concedes that a reasonable jury could have found him guilty of murder.

"I don't know of any other way that the system could have processed Troy Anthony Davis's case other than the way it has," he says.

A review of the case starts at the crime scene. MacPhail, 27, was off-duty but working security at a Greyhound bus station on the night of August 19, 1989, when he rushed to the aid of a homeless man who was being beaten. The officer was shot twice - once each in the face and chest - and died in a Burger King parking lot.

Davis, 20, who had dropped out of high school to help care for an ill sibling, turned himself in four days later.

During the trial, Davis testified that he was with Sylvester Coles when his companion got in a scuffle with Larry Young over a beer. He said Mr Coles began beating the man, and that Mr Young's calls for help attracted MacPhail.

Davis testified that he started walking away, then began running when he saw a police officer heading towards them.

"I didn't see the shooting," Davis testified. His attorney, Robert Falligant, tried to persuade jurors that Mr Coles was the real killer.

But Mr Coles testified that it was Davis who had been arguing with Young, and that Davis hit the man in the head with a gun. Mr Coles said he ran when he saw a police officer approaching, and then heard gunshots. He told jurors he never saw the shooter.

There was no DNA evidence implicating Davis. No fingerprints. Not even a gun.

Protesters have made much of the notion that several key witnesses in Davis's 1991 trial recanted or significantly altered their statements, and that much of that has not been allowed into the record. But a review of the trial transcript supports what prosecutors have long held: that several of the these "new" statements largely rehash doubts and second thoughts the witnesses had already voiced in front of the trial jury 20 years ago.

Based on what was presented at trial, Davis never should have been sentenced to death, said his attorney, Stephen Marsh.

"Such incredibly flawed eyewitness testimony should never be the basis for an execution," he said on Wednesday before Davis was executed. "To execute someone under these circumstances would be unconscionable."

The assertions by Davis's legal team got the attention of the Supreme Court. For the first time in a half century, justices sent the case back to a lower court for a hearing on evidence that Davis's attorneys insisted would prove his innocence.

During the hearing, Davis's attorneys did not present Mr Coles, something the University of Georgia law professor Donald Wilkes calls "the most astonishing blundering and goofing that I've ever heard of in a post-conviction case". The US district judge William T Moore chided Davis's defence for not calling Mr Coles.

"Because of that mistake, the trial judge would not allow them to introduce a lot of the witness recantation evidence," Professor Wilkes says. "There were a number of witnesses who wanted to testify that this other man had admitted that he was the one who was the killer."

In a ruling in August 2010 that made him a lightning rod for outrage, Judge Moore concluded that Davis's lawyers had failed.

"Ultimately, while Mr Davis's new evidence casts some additional, minimal doubt on his conviction, it is largely smoke and mirrors," he ruled. "The vast majority of the evidence at trial remains intact, and the new evidence is largely not credible or lacking in probative value."

Denny LeBoeuf, the director of the American Civil Liberties Union's capital punishment project, says Judge Moore set the bar too high, essentially requiring Davis to prove he was innocent.

"Most people couldn't prove that the day after the homicide, let alone 20 years later," she says. "And it's not the way our system works - for a good reason."