Ga. Inmate's Death Sentence Questions Justice Troy Davis, a 39-year-old African-American on death row in a Georgia prison for killing a police officer lost his final appeal yesterday after the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear the matter.
NPR logo

Ga. Inmate's Death Sentence Questions Justice

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Ga. Inmate's Death Sentence Questions Justice


Ga. Inmate's Death Sentence Questions Justice

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


The U.S. financial crisis has certainly attracted concern around the world. Now we want to turn to a very different issue that has also attracted international attention. It's the case of Troy Davis, a death row inmate from Georgia. The U.S. Supreme Court yesterday rejected his request for a full hearing about his 1991 murder conviction in the killing of an off-duty police officer in Savannah.

Troy Davis has always maintained his innocence, and since the verdict that put him on death row, seven witnesses who testified against him have recanted their testimony. But the State of Georgia has refused to grant Davis a new trial, and the Supreme Court's refusal yesterday to hear the case has cleared the way for Georgia to set a new date for Davis' execution.

Joining us to talk about the Davis case is Virginia Sloan, founder and president of the Constitution Project. It's a bipartisan organization that seeks a consensus on legal and constitutional issues. She's here with me in Washington. Thank you so much for joining.

Ms. VIRGINIA SLOAN (Founder and President, Constitution Project): Thanks so much for having me, Michel.

MARTIN: First of all, I wanted to ask why has this case attracted so much attention? I mean, obviously, there are some people who oppose the death penalty in any and all cases, but members of your group include supporters of the death penalty. It's bipartisan, and some of the supporters of the death penalty also are concerned about this case. Why so?

Ms. SLOAN: That's right. The Constitution Project's Death Penalty Committee includes supporters as well as opponents of the death penalty, people like former FBI director and Federal Judge William S. Sessions. And he has been quite outspoken about the injustices in the Troy Davis case. One of the reasons I think why this case has attracted attention is because Mr. Davis was lucky enough to have the support of some prominent organizations and a prominent law firm to be representing him. There are scores of other cases that we don't even know about that had the same kinds of injustices as Troy Davis. But because of the advantages - the relative advantages - that Mr. Davis had, he attracted a lot of attention from the Pope, from Desmond Tutu, from people like Judge Sessions.

MARTIN: What are the injustices in this case, in the view of critics like former FBI Director William Sessions?

Ms. SLOAN: Well, the fact that, as you mentioned, so many of the witnesses at trial recanted their testimony. They came forward afterwards to say that they had been pressured by the police, that they really didn't see what they had said they saw at trial, and it created an enormous amount of doubt that he was the right person, that he was the true perpetrator. And all Mr. Davis was asking was for the courts, either the Georgia court or the federal court, to hear those claims of innocence. And no court would.

MARTIN: One of the issues that William Sessions has been raising is the law can be highly restrictive when it comes to being able to consider claims that were not raised during the original trial. Why is that? And are there efforts underway to address this issue?

Ms. SLOAN: Well, there have been efforts underway to address that issue for many years in both the states and in the federal government, but they have not been successful, much to the frustration of people like me in the Constitution Project. We've been working for years to try to lift some of those procedural barriers. And what they are, is a process that the courts have been directed to follow that has nothing to do with the merits. It has nothing to do with the truth or falsity of any claim. It just says that under certain circumstances, if a process hasn't been followed, then the courts have no ability to hear the claim.

MARTIN: Well, someone argued that the system doesn't guarantee you a perfect trial, only a fair one. What do you say to that?

Ms. SLOAN: Well, that's true. But the system has to accommodate claims of innocence. We surely do not want to be executing innocent people, and not only is that a terrible injustice for the innocent person who's executed but that means that the true perpetrator is still out there and could very well be harming other people. That's just not the way our system should work.

MARTIN: In September, just hours before Davis was originally scheduled to be executed, the Supreme Court issued a stay, but then yesterday the court denied a rehearing without comment.

Ms. SLOAN: Right.

MARTIN: So do we know, first of all, why the court granted him a stay and then chose not to hear the case? And why not offer a reason?

Ms. SLOAN: Well, usually the court does not when it denies (unintelligible), which is what it did yesterday. It does not offer a reason. Sometimes there's a dissenting opinion. Yesterday there wasn't. But what probably happened is that in September, the court, being aware of the controversy surrounding this case and the fact that so many witnesses had recanted, there were enough justices who said, look, we ought to take a look at this case. But ultimately, for whatever reason, they decided not to take the case, and that's largely because the Supreme Court has set an extremely high standard for taking cases and for reviewing cases where there's an innocence claim.

MARTIN: Why wouldn't Georgia's authorities, though, want to have a rehearing, given that so many of the major witnesses say that Davis was not the person who actually committed the crime? He may have been present but he was not the person who killed the officer. And that, in fact, the person who did is known.

Ms. SLOAN: Well, that's a really good question but there's no easy answer. In part, it is that you have law enforcement officials, you have the victim's family - all of whom are absolutely convinced that Mr. Davis is the right person, and the fact that these witnesses recanted really hasn't changed their view. There are all these procedural barriers that prevent the Georgia authorities from hearing the case.

There was another theory that was recently raised by someone who represents a lot of people on death row, and that is that the Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles had recently given clemency to somebody else for no reason that anybody could understand, except that so many of these cases deserve clemency. But it was just a few months ago, and politically, it's very difficult for them to give clemency yet again, even if it's merited.

MARTIN: And finally, I wanted to ask in the minute or so that we have left, given the objections that had been raised in this case and others by people who in other circumstances do support the death penalty, are there improvements to the system or changes that both death penalty supporters and those who oppose it can agree on?

Ms. SLOAN: That's exactly what the Constitution Project's Death Penalty Committee did. We have a series of recommendations for improvements to the system. They are not going to make the system infallible because nothing can. But at least there are improvements, serious improvements, that desperately need to be made. But there is still a tremendous amount of resistance to making those improvements.

MARTIN: Virginia Sloan is the founder and president of the nonprofit and bipartisan organization, The Constitution Project. She was kind enough to join us from our Washington studios. Virginia Sloan, thank you so much for speaking with us.

Ms. SLOAN: Thank you so much for inviting me.

Copyright © 2008 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.