Georgia Inmate's Execution Postponed For Third Time
MICHEL MARTIN, host:
And now we have another update on another story we've been following, the case of Georgia inmate Troy Davis. He had been scheduled for execution Monday, but that was before a federal appeals court intervened on Friday. It granted a stay of execution to allow another appeal, although the U.S. Supreme Court had refused to get involved last week. This is the third time Davis' life has been spared by a court decision.
Davis was convicted of killing an off-duty police officer in 1989. But since his conviction in 1991, seven of the nine eyewitnesses that helped put him on death row have changed their testimony. For more in this case, we're joined by Virginia Sloan. She's the founder and president of the Washington D.C.-based think tank the Constitution Project, whose members include both supporters and opponents of the death penalty. Welcome back, thank so much for speaking with us again.
Ms. VIRGINIA SLOAN (Founder and President, The Constitution Project): Thank you so much for having me.
MARTIN: The Supreme Court, as I mentioned, passed on hearing this case more than a week ago. How unusual is it that somebody gets the chance for another appeal after that?
Ms. SLOAN: Well, it's not necessarily that unusual, but I have to say that a lot of people were surprised. They did think that the Supreme Court's refusal to hear the case was the end of the road for Mr. Davis. So, a lot of people were surprised when the 11th Circuit on Friday stayed the case. And we don't know exactly what's going to happen next. The - there's a very high burden of proof that the lawyers for Mr. Davis have to prove in order to get him back into court on the merits of his claims.
MARTIN: But what are the grounds for this latest appeal?
Ms. SLOAN: Well, the grounds are that he's innocent, that seven of the nine witnesses against him have recanted their testimony, they've gone back on their testimony, and that if any jury were to consider the case now, hearing what these witnesses have to say - and there are five new witnesses who've come forward to implicate somebody else - that no jury would convict Mr. Davis under these circumstances.
MARTIN: You know, you came to visit with us earlier to talk about this case. And you mentioned that one of the reasons many people have gotten concerned about this case, including former President Jimmy Carter, former FBI director William Sessions, is the concern about eyewitness testimony in this case and others. Now, what's wrong with eyewitness testimony? I think many people assume that that's the gold standard. If you have a human being who was there and says that's the guy, then that's the guy. So, tell me, what questions has this case raised?
Ms. SLOAN: Well, let me tell you a story that - it's the first thing that law students learn in their criminal law class, and that is, imagine yourself in a restaurant. You order your water, your drinks, whatever. And then you're ready to order your dinner. And you want to get your waiter back to the table. And you look at all the people who are waiters and waitresses, and you think, which one is mine? And you don't know, because you haven't been paying attention. Now add to that, you're under incredible stress, you've the victim of a crime or you're watching a crime. There's a gun, there's a knife, it's dark, you're terrified. All of those kinds of things diminish your ability to correctly identify somebody. So, that's a huge problem.
There are other problems with eyewitness identification - how far away you are from the events that you're trying to recount, whether you are of a different race than the people that you're trying to identify, there are - when you get to the point where somebody has been arrested, or even just before an arrest, as happened in the Troy Davis case - Mr. Davis was identified by someone who apparently is the true perpetrator. And his pictures were all over the newspapers. And there were wanted posters. So, when people came in and were asked, OK, what did you see? Troy Davis' case - uh, his face, comes into their mind because his face is all over town.
MARTIN: So, it turns out that eyewitness testimony is very suggestive...
Ms. SLOAN: Yes, indeed.
MARTIN: And there's data to demonstrate that?
Ms. SLOAN: That is exactly right. There's been a whole host of studies about how unreliable eyewitness identification is. And there are a lot of cases that are prosecuted based on the testimony of a single eyewitness, which is particularly unreliable.
MARTIN: Does race play a role in this case?
Ms. SLOAN: Race may. I'm actually not clear about the race of all of the people who identified Mr. Davis. So, I can't really answer that. It certainly plays a role in a lot of other cases.
MARTIN: The victim in this case was - is white. And the perpetrator is alleged...
Ms. SLOAN: Alleged perpetrator.
MARTIN: The alleged perpetuator is African-American.
Ms. SLOAN: Yeah.
MARTIN: And does that play a role?
Ms. SLOAN: Not - it's basically the people who are the eyewitnesses and the person they're trying to identify that are the key components of the reliability of an eyewitness identification.
MARTIN: Yeah, you know, the prosecutor, one of the prosecutors that was involved in this case originally, in the original prosecution, says now he believes that the eyewitnesses who changed their testimony are subject to manipulation, that there's, sort of, pressure to change their testimony at this point. Do you find that credible?
Ms. SLOAN: Well, who knows at this point? Because the lawyers for Mr. Davis are saying they were subject to manipulation in the very beginning. There was one woman who now says that she was pressured by the police into identifying Mr. Davis, even though she originally said it was too dark, she was too far away, she couldn't identify anybody. And when she wanted to tell the truth, she was then advised that it would be considered perjury if she went back on her original testimony. So, at this point, the case is just a morass. And that's exactly why he shouldn't be executed because nobody knows what the truth is.
MARTIN: And what happens now?
Ms. SLOAN: Well, now what happens is that the appellate court has to determine whether there's been a sufficient showing by Mr. Davis' lawyers that no reasonable jury would have found him guilty. And if that's the case, then it would go back to the federal district court, the trial court, to determine the facts.
MARTIN: Virginia Sloan is the founder and president of the nonprofit and bipartisan Constitution Project. She joined us here in our Washington studios. Virginia, thank you so much for speaking with us.
Ms. SLOAN: Thank you very much.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio.