Law

Death Row Inmate Gets Chance To Prove Innocence

  • Playlist
  • Download
  • Embed
    <iframe src="http://www.npr.org/player/embed/128017555/128024383" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Troy Anthony Davis in court in Savannah in 1991. i

Troy Anthony Davis enters Chatham County Superior Court in Savannah, Ga., on Aug. 22, 1991, during his trial in the shooting death of police officer Mark MacPhail. He was convicted of murder and sentenced to death. At a hearing Wednesday, Davis will have the chance to prove he is innocent. AP/The Savannah Morning News hide caption

toggle caption AP/The Savannah Morning News
Troy Anthony Davis in court in Savannah in 1991.

Troy Anthony Davis enters Chatham County Superior Court in Savannah, Ga., on Aug. 22, 1991, during his trial in the shooting death of police officer Mark MacPhail. He was convicted of murder and sentenced to death. At a hearing Wednesday, Davis will have the chance to prove he is innocent.

AP/The Savannah Morning News

A man convicted of murder nearly two decades ago will get a chance to present his claim of innocence in a federal court Wednesday.

Troy Anthony Davis was convicted in 1991 of murdering a Savannah, Ga., police officer. Nine witnesses to the shooting, which took place late at night in a fast-food restaurant parking lot, pointed to Davis as the killer.

Davis received the death penalty, but several years later, his lawyers say, seven of the witnesses recanted or changed their testimony.

Since then, Davis has tried to get a court to listen to them. Three times, his execution was stopped. Now a federal judge in Savannah will finally hear their testimony.

"From the moment Mr. Davis surrendered himself, he's proclaimed his innocence and never wavered from that," Jason Ewart, one of Davis' attorneys, says.

Ewart says for the first time in nearly 50 years, the U.S. Supreme Court took a case filed directly to it and ordered a lower court to hear new evidence. Unlike in a criminal trial, the burden of proof falls on Davis to show he is innocent.

But one of the big questions is, what is the standard of proof? Ewart says the defense will not have to prove Davis is innocent beyond a reasonable doubt, just that "more likely than not" he's innocent.

The case has drawn widespread attention. Amnesty International started a petition drive protesting Davis' execution several years ago. Former President Jimmy Carter and Pope Benedict XVI are among those who've written letters on behalf of Davis.

Laura Moye, director of Amnesty's Death Penalty Abolition Campaign, says it will be an incredibly uphill battle for Davis to "clearly establish his innocence."

But, she says, there are too many unanswered questions to go forward with his execution. There is no DNA evidence and no weapon was ever found.

"With a life sentence you can always open the door if there is a question of innocence," she says. "With the death penalty, if you get it wrong, how can the state ever give that human life back?"

Neither the Georgia attorney general's office, representing the state in federal court, nor the retired Savannah prosecutor would comment.

J. Tom Morgan, former district attorney in Atlanta, says it's difficult to reverse a conviction based on statements from recanted witnesses and that's for good reason.

"Did seven people lie under oath the first go around? And what was their motivation for lying back then?" he asks. "And what is their motivation now for coming forward and changing their story?"

Even though the DA at the time had a solid case, Morgan says, questions raised now about the possibility of executing an innocent man could be put to rest easily if the Georgia Parole Board would commute the sentence to life without parole.

"Life without the possibility of parole is a death sentence," he says. "It just takes a little longer and the state is not the one responsible for pulling the plug."

There was a great deal of pressure two decades ago for Savannah police to find a suspect in the murder of officer Mark MacPhail. People who oppose the death penalty say this case demonstrates that prosecutors, eyewitnesses and courts can sometimes get it wrong.

But those who favor the death penalty say this is exactly the kind of crime that cries out for it. They say just because a court is hearing Davis' claim of innocence doesn't mean his conviction will be overturned.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.

NPR thanks our sponsors

Become an NPR sponsor

Support comes from