Searching For Justice In The Troy Davis Case
LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:
On Monday, the Supreme Court ordered a new hearing for Troy Davis. Davis is on death row in Georgia for the 1989 murder of an off-duty police officer. With 27 former prosecutors and judges filing a brief in support of Davis, the Supreme Court ordered a federal trial court to decide whether new evidence proves Davis' innocence. It's a notable departure for the Supreme Court. And Justice Antonin Scalia took some heat for his dissent. He argued in part that innocence may not be enough for the court to overturn a verdict if the trial was fair.
We'll talk more about that in a moment and about the implications of this case for other death row inmates. We begin now with Cynthia Tucker of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. And she joins us from her home in Washington, D.C. Welcome.
Ms. CYNTHIA TUCKER (Editor, Atlanta Journal-Constitution): Thank you, Linda.
WERTHEIMER: You argue that Troy Davis must be given the opportunity to present evidence, new evidence, and that justice demands it.
Ms. TUCKER: Indeed. I think that cases like this go far beyond the actual innocence of any one defendant, although that is certainly important. But beyond that, all of us need to believe that the criminal justice system is fair and impartial.
And in this case, where so many of the original witnesses have recanted, have said that they lied to the trial court, some have claimed that they were both pressured by police and, perhaps, most - even more impressive is a woman who didn't give testimony at the original trial who has some testimony that I think the court absolutely ought to hear, that suggests someone else killed off-duty police officer Mark Allen MacPhail.
In a case like this, you don't want the public out there believing that an innocent man may have been assigned to death row. So, I believe it was extremely important that the U.S. Supreme Court, in a rather unusual ruling, has said that a lower court must hear this new evidence.
WERTHEIMER: Of course, you also acknowledge that there is a very high bar here that Troy Davis is - what he is going to have to do is - or his lawyers will have to do - is present witnesses, eyewitnesses. And that is not the, you know, the kind of evidence often that courts like. They like evidence that, you know, that does not depend upon what somebody saw many years ago. They want physical evidence. They want something that they can sort of get their hands around.
Ms. TUCKER: Indeed. As I noted on my blog, this case - Troy Davis must now prove that he is innocent. In the typical criminal trial, the burden is on the state to prove that the defendant is guilty. In this case, Troy Davis must prove that he is innocent. And that is a high bar to overcome for the reasons you just outlined.
There is no new physical evidence in this case. I think many of us, particularly having watched television shows about police laboratories, have become enamored of this idea that physical evidence, especially DNA, will probably be present in every crime. Well, it isn't. There is no DNA evidence in this case. What we do have, again, are witnesses who have come forward to say, what I said the first time wasn't true. And unfortunately for Troy Davis, that testimony did not persuade the Georgia Supreme Court.
WERTHEIMER: What about the - you also make the point that the family of the victim deserves justice. And you think that a rehearing of the case is the only chance of that.
Ms. TUCKER: Absolutely. Because the family of the victim will get justice only if the right person is convicted of the crime. The family doesn't get justice if the gunman is still running around out there free and an innocent man is put to death. And while I understand that the family has waited since 1989 for justice for their loved one, I don't believe that justice is set back if the court gets to hear this new evidence. Again, I think justice for all of us is served only if the right person is ultimately convicted for this crime, the person who actually pulled the trigger and killed off-duty police officer MacPhail.
WERTHEIMER: And let me just ask you one more question, then I want to bring in somebody else to talk about the court. How did - how do people in Georgia feel about what's happened?
Ms. TUCKER: Well, as you might imagine, the idea that Troy Davis may not be guilty is a controversial one. The original prosecutor in the case has very strongly defended the conviction of Troy Davis. He says that he doesn't believe that all of these witnesses are now telling the truth, that perhaps they just feel guilty because Troy Davis will get executed, but there's no reason to believe what they're saying now.
But there are others who understand that it is only too easy for the less affluent to be pressured by police officers. I think all of us know that when a police officer is killed, there is tremendous pressure on the community, on the police department, to find the killer. Some of the original witnesses claim that they were pressured by the police to testify that Troy Davis was, in fact, the triggerman.
And so the case is controversial in Georgia. Troy Davis has his defenders, but he also has his detractors who say the right man is on death row.
WERTHEIMER: Let's talk more about the significance of the decision by the Supreme Court. Richard Dieter is executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, and he joins us from his office in Washington, D.C.
Mr. Dieter, welcome.
Mr. RICHARD DIETER (Executive Director, Death Penalty Information Center): Thank you for having me.
WERTHEIMER: Now, this is an unusual decision for the Supreme Court. They're - they came back to Washington early, and this is one of the things they've done, making a decision that a lower court should do what it doesn't want to do and listen to evidence again.
Mr. DIETER: Yes. This is a Supreme Court in the supervisory role, saying that the justice system has to be updated. We have long made a unspoken assumption that if a person is innocent, they'll be found out at trial or on appeal or through clemency. But it is now apparent through a number of cases that that doesn't always happen. Sometimes, an innocent person comes very close to execution, and the court is now stepping in to say that may itself be unconstitutional.
WERTHEIMER: So you think that the notion that - the idea that - the thing that these, excuse me - that you just simply cannot count on a person who's convicted being guilty, that this is sort of a public relations problem for the courts that the court is handling?
Mr. DIETER: No. These are very unusual cases, Troy Davis' case. It's not that we just have to clean up the image, but occasionally, despite witnesses at trial and a fair process, cases - like the DNA cases - show that there can be new evidence coming 20 years later, which is more powerful than anything that was presented at trial. And so the system has to adjust for that.
Right now, the system says we need to close the door. We need finality. We need to get on with these executions. If you had an appeal, your time is over. It's too late. That just doesn't work anymore in a day and age when we realize there could be new evidence. We simply cannot execute innocent people or, really, incarcerate innocent people. If people have proof, that has to find a way into our system.
WERTHEIMER: It has to be listened to somehow. Well, that was the majority opinion, but Justice Antonin Scalia did not agree with that. And as I said earlier, he's taken some heat for that. What do you think his dissent means?
Mr. DIETER: Well, he's looking at the law - the law that controls this kind of appeal is the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act. And it does seem to bar the kind of petition that Troy Davis is bringing. You have to bring a constitutional issue. And, you know, right now, the Supreme Court hasn't recognized that innocence itself, strange as it sounds, is a constitutional issue. So he's making a point, but I think perhaps missing the forest here. The forest here is that no one in this country, I don't think, wants innocent people to be executed. And so either that law is unconstitutional or there must be some intent in Congress to allow a work around here so that evidence such as Troy Davis has can be presented and heard before a court.
WERTHEIMER: Cynthia Tucker of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, who's been writing about this - Cynthia, the - Justice Scalia is correct that there has been - there have been attempts to work this through the appeals process. Why didn't the appeals process work for this man?
Ms. TUCKER: Well, that's a very good question. I referred earlier to an appeal he filed with the Georgia Supreme Court. The Georgia Supreme Court actually heard this evidence but decided it was not enough to prove his innocence. And he also had the opportunity to get clemency from the Georgia Board of Pardon and Parole, which I think was his very best chance. They did not have to declare him innocent. They could merely have commuted the sentence to life without parole.
I think it was a very big mistake that the Georgia Board of Pardon and Paroles did not do that. It could have at least given police agencies and Troy Davis more time to make his case that he was innocent, and the public would not have been put at risk if he was still incarcerated but not on death row.
But the Board of Pardon and Paroles did not do that. They, I guess, either were not persuaded by the evidence or felt political pressure to keep him on death row. And so I, quite frankly, expected the U.S. Supreme Court to turn this down, and I am cheered by the fact that they have not.
And if I could add one more thing to this notion about whether it's constitutional or not, if the Constitution is not there to protect the liberty of the innocent, then I don't know what it's for.
WERTHEIMER: Cynthia Tucker of the Atlanta-Constitution. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
We're here with Cynthia Tucker of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and Richard Dieter, who is executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center.
Mr. Dieter, this case, this is a difficult case for the reasons that Cynthia Tucker was just outlining. Even though the Supreme Court has taken an extra step here, it is not a case with a kind of strong evidence where - that enables somebody who is a court observer to look at it and say, okay, I think this could work. Almost everyone we've talked to has said they don't think that it will work.
Mr. DIETER: Well, this is a case where there isn't DNA evidence, something that would probably have been an easier call. But, you know, that's why we need courts that step in occasionally. This is that closer call or tougher case. I think, though, that if seven eyewitnesses had stood up at Troy Davis' original trial and said, I don't think it's him, I didn't see him, et cetera, he wouldn't have been convicted.
And so that's the goal here, to try to get back to where we were and to say now, given what we now know…
Mr. DIETER: …what's the right outcome, I don't suspect we'll ever know perfectly, but we'd want to err on the side of caution, here.
WERTHEIMER: Richard Dieter. He's executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center. He joined us from his office in Washington, D.C.
Thank you very much.
Mr. DIETER: Thank you.
WERTHEIMER: Cynthia Tucker is a columnist for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and she joined us from her home in Washington, D.C.
Ms. TUCKER: Thank you, Linda.
WERTHEIMER: Okay. Here we go. Talk - this is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News, and I'm Linda Wertheimer.