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Too Much Doubt to Execute: Remembering Troy Davis, 10 Years Later

Too Much Doubt to Execute

by Sara J. Totonchi

Originally published on September 26, 2011

The eyes of the world are on Georgia in the wake of the execution of Troy Davis. The tragedy of the murder of Officer Mark MacPhail has been compounded by the drawn-out process of the march to death, yet 22 years later, questions still remain about whether Troy Davis is guilty of the crime for which he may die.

The case of Troy Davis represents everything wrong with the death penalty — from procedural obstacles to racial bias to witness mishandling to allegations of police and prosecutorial misconduct to inadequate assistance of counsel. Each of these problems are constitutional issues that the Southern Center for Human Rights (SCHR), litigates daily as we represent people facing the death penalty in Georgia and Alabama.

I started my work at SCHR in 2001, the year of that the Georgia Supreme Court issued a ruling that abolished the electric chair. I’m proud to say that it was our firm that argued the case that successfully eliminated one of the enduring symbols of the harshness of the southern justice system. Between the time it was first used in 1924 and its last use in 1998, Georgia used the chair to electrocute 349 Black people and 86 white people.

It was also in 2001 that I first became aware of the case of Troy Davis. Martina Correia, Mr. Davis’s sister, called to welcome me to the movement to end the death penalty and shared with me that her brother is an innocent person on Georgia’s death row. As an employee of SCHR — a firm that is dedicated to providing legal representation to people facing the death penalty who wouldn’t otherwise have lawyers regardless of guilt — I was taught to be cautious, even skeptical of claims of innocence. But as I learned more about the sequence of events that led to Mr. Davis’ arrival on death row, my skepticism turned to shock and disbelief.

Simply put, there is too much doubt that persisted in the case of Troy Davis. Mr. Davis maintained his innocence from the day of his arrest until his very last words on the night he was killed: “I am innocent.” No physical evidence tied Mr. Davis to the crime. He was convicted solely on the basis of eyewitness testimony and 7 out of 9 witnesses have recanted or changed their story. An eyewitness testified for the first time in 2010 that he saw his someone else, not Davis, shoot Officer MacPhail. At least ten individuals have implicated the alternative suspect as the actual perpetrator.

When human error leads to a failure to examine critical evidence, and jurors are not informed of reasons to doubt that the evidence actually says what the State alleges, the Board of Pardons and Paroles exists as a safety net to prevent the irreversible mistake of executing the innocent.

Regrettably, last week the Parole Board declined to grant clemency to Mr. Davis. This is despite their previous statement that they will not allow an execution to proceed where there is any doubt as to guilt. In this case, there are serious doubts which remain as to Mr. Davis’ guilt.

It has been repeatedly demonstrated that our criminal justice system is not devoid of error and we now know that since 1976,139 individuals have been released from death rows across the United States, most often due to mistaken witness identification. In Georgia, this problem is particularly acute: all eight of the men who have been exonerated thanks to the work of the Georgia Innocence Project were wrongfully convicted on the basis of faulty eyewitness testimony.

The system of capital punishment is fallible, given that it is administered by fallible human beings. Across the nation some states are beginning to move away from the death penalty because of growing concerns about innocence, unfairness, discriminatory application, lack of efficacy, and other reasons. The death penalty was intended to be reserved for the worst offenders, but in practice, it is arbitrary and unfair. The system is fraught with error, plagued by poor legal representation, and discriminates on the basis of income, race and geography among many problems that leave it too broken to be fixed.

In 1976, the same year the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty, Jerome Bowden, a man with an IQ of 65 was sentenced to death in the murder of Kathryn Stryker in Columbus, Georgia. In his last words to the world before the switch was pulled, Bowden said:

“I am Jerome Bowden and I would like to say my execution is to be carried out. I would like to thank the people of this institution. I hope that by my execution being carried out, it will bring some light to this thing that is wrong.”

When Bowden died, legal and volunteer advocates were crushed, but his last sentence kept them working. They didn’t stop until the Georgia General Assembly passed the first law in the nation that banned the execution of persons with mental retardation. Jerome’s words fuel me and push me forward on the days when I feel there is no hope left at all.

And it is hope that remains despite the disappointment, sadness and anger of the execution of Troy Davis. But as long as the State continues this futile and brutalizing exercise in vengeance, we will continue to make our treks to death row, the State Capitol, and the courthouses to take a public stand against this killing in our name.