Troy Davis Execution Ordered for Sept. 23, 2008 in Georgia

September 3, 2008

The Chatham County Superior Court has ordered the execution of Troy Davis, which the Georgia Department of Corrrections has set for September 23, 2008, at 7p.m. EST.

As a brief recap, Mr. Davis is charged with killing a police officer, based entirely on eyewitness evidence.  There is no physical evidence in the case, and the murder weapon was never recovered.  Seven of the nine eyewitnesses have recanted their testimony, with many claiming coercion and threats by the police who conducted the original investigation.  One of the remaining witnesses has been accused of being the actual killer, and allegedly confessed to the crime.  Mr. Davis has maintained his innocence from the outset, but has remained on death row for 17 years.

In July, the European Parliament issued a resolution calling on Georgia to commute Troy Davis’s death sentence.

More information at Troy Davis’s site and at Amnesty International USA.  Anyone concerned is urged to contact the Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles and urge them to commute Mr. Davis’s death sentence.  Amnesty International has created a web form, and traditional letters are encouraged as well, to the following address:

Georgia State Board of Pardons & Paroles
2 Martin Luther King, Jr. Drive, SE
Suite 458, Balcony Level, East Tower
Atlanta, GA 30334

You can also fax a message to (404) 651-8502.

UPDATE: Troy Davis was denied clemency today (09/12/08).  Barring an intervention, Mr. Davis will be executed by the state of Georgia on September 23.


Justice Denied Again for Troy Davis

April 14, 2008

The AP is reporting that the Georgia Supreme Court has denied Troy Davis’s latest effort to obtain a new trial.  Mr. Davis’s attorneys filed a new motion, following the court’s March 17 denial of their earlier extraordinary motion for a new trial, this time moving for reconsideration of that earlier ruling.

A substitute opinion was also issued, with the same 4-3 split and the dissenting opinion remaining the same.  New opinion available here (PDF).

Thanks to Deirdre O’Connor at Emory Law School for the tip, and for tirelessly seeking a remedy for Mr. Davis.


No New Trial for Troy Davis

March 17, 2008

The Georgia Supreme Court today ruled 4-3 that Troy Davis, now again facing execution, will not get a new trial. According to the court, statements by a slew of witnesses who claimed that they had lied at trial under police pressure were insufficient to support a finding that a different result would likely be reached if the case were subjected to a new trial — in a case in which the only evidence presented was the apparently coerced testimony of the same witnesses. As a result of this inexplicable finding, the Georgia Supreme Court refused to stand in the way of the execution of a man who insists he is, and whom many believe to be, innocent.

This is a case in which, as we reported previously, one witness offered the following to the court:

I kept telling them that I didn’t know. It was dark, my windows were tinted, and I was scared. It all happened so fast. Even today, I know that I could not honestly identify with any certainty who shot the officer that night.
[…]
After the officers talked to me, they gave me a statement and told me to sign it. I signed it. I did not read it because I cannot read.

And another offered:

I nodded and repeated what they said, whether it was true or not…. I am not proud for lying at Troy’s trial, but the police had me so messed up that I felt that’s all I could do or else I would go to jail.

It boggles the mind that the court did not find the new evidence sufficient evidence to support a finding that a different result would be likely if a new trial were granted. The only witnesses who were not themselves accused of committing the crime came forward to claim that they had lied under pressure from police to convict Troy Davis. Three witnesses further claimed that Sylvester Coles had confessed to the crime. Two witnesses further stated that Coles was in possession of a handgun later the same night.

Chief Justice Sears dissented, along with Hunstein and Benham. According to Sears, the GA Supreme Court’s interpretation of the applicable legal standard is wrong:

I believe that this case illustrates that this Court’s approach in extraordinary motions for new trials based on new evidence is overly rigid and fails to allow an adequate inquiry into the fundamental question, which is whether or not an innocent person might have been convicted or even, as in this case, might be put to death.

Sears further urged that “it simply defies all logic and morality” to disregard “categorically” recantation testimony that appears to undermine the validity of the evidence presented at trial. While the majority claimed that it “endeavored to look beyond bare legal principles…to the core question” of whether a jury would reach a different conclusion if presented with the new evidence, the dissenting justices urged the application of a different standard that would treat the recantations with a higher level of deference — or at least something short of categorical exclusion:

[T]his Court is free to adopt rules and standards that best promote the ends of justice, and this case illustrates with alarming clarity why this Court’s rules should allow trial courts to consider all forms of evidence that would be admissible if a new trial were ordered and to exercise sound discretion in weighing that evidence.

Sears and the other dissenters further found the new evidence sufficiently compelling to warrant, at minimum, a hearing by which to assess its credibility. Unfortunately the majority was not persuaded by her sound reasoning.

My understanding is that Mr. Davis’s case now goes back to the Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles, which has the authority to commute his sentence to life with parole, after which point it may parole him. I will plan to follow up with action alerts as I’m advised by those continuing to work on this case on anything that members of the public might be able to do to persuade the parole board or others to help reverse this tragedy.


The High Cost of Flawed Police Procedures

March 5, 2008

In the midst of an ongoing effort to reform the flawed police procedures used by Georgia law enforcement agencies to collect eyewitness evidence, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution published a great piece by Cynthia Tucker on “The Incalculable Price of Faulty Eyewitness IDs.”

It begins:

The Georgia General Assembly is once again preparing to compensate a man for a grave injustice, once again considering a cash payment to a victim of a wrongful conviction. On Monday, the House Appropriations Committee recommended a payment of $1.2 million to Willie Otis “Pete” Williams, who was freed from prison in January 2007 after serving nearly 22 years for a rape he did not commit.

A million dollars isn’t nearly enough. A billion dollars wouldn’t be enough.

After touching on the incomprehensible loss to a man wrongfully imprisoned for 22 years, the author laments that “the General Assembly has become practiced at the fine art of negotiating the value of stolen years.”

She continues:

You’d think this steady procession of Georgians cruelly stripped of their freedom would prompt more than million-dollar payments from the state treasury. You’d think their fates would inspire agonizing debate over the frailties of the state’s criminal justice system. And you’d think that legislators would rush to find remedies that would at least lower the number of wrongful convictions.

You’d be wrong.

There is still time for the GA legislature to do the right thing and move this out of the Rules Committee and put this important reform bill to a vote. Let’s hope Ms. Tucker is wrong this time.

ACTION ITEM: If you’d like to contact GA legislators about this issue and urge them to do the right thing, an action alert is below the fold with contact info and a scripted email, compliments of Laura Moye with Amnesty International.

Read the rest of this entry »


GA House Committee Approves Eyewitness ID Reforms

February 11, 2008

A Georgia House of Representatives committee recently approved two pieces of legislation designed to reform police procedures for collecting eyewitness evidence.

The Non-Civil Judiciary Committee voted unanimously to approve HB 997 and 10 to 5 to approve HR 1071. The legislation now heads to the House Rules Committee for consideration with a favorable recommendation.

The bill, known as the Witness Identification Accuracy Enhancement Act, calls for the state law enforcement agency to develop a set of guidelines for the collection of eyewitness evidence in showups, photo arrays, and live lineups. It also calls on the state public safety training center to work with prosecutors to develop a training program for implementation of the procedures.

The House Resolution outlines specific best practices for conducting the identification procedures. Importantly, the resolution “strongly encourages” double-blind lineup procedures, where the administrator of the lineup would be a “neutral independent administrator, when feasible, and no person familiar with the identity of the suspect should be present during a photographic lineup or physical lineup.” This is arguably the most important requirement of the two pieces of legislation, as social scientists are broadly in agreement that the communication of subtle cues — either inadvertent or intentional — to witnesses by lineup administrators regarding the identity of the police suspect is the primary flaw in status quo lineup practices that lead to misidentification, and ultimately wrongful conviction.

The full text of the best practices outline in the resolution are as follows:

(1) It is strongly encouraged that the administrator of a photographic lineup or physical lineup should be a neutral independent administrator, when feasible, and no person familiar with the identity of the suspect should be present during a photographic lineup or physical lineup;
(2) Prior to beginning a photographic lineup or physical lineup identification procedure, the administrator should instruct the witness that:
(A) The witness does not have to make an identification, and the identification procedure is important to the investigation whether or not an identification is made;
(B) The individuals depicted in the photographic lineup or physical lineup may not appear exactly as the witness observed on the date of the crime because features such as hairstyles and facial hair are subject to change;
(C) The perpetrator may or may not be among those shown in the photographic lineup or physical lineup;
(D) When a neutral independent administrator is conducting the photographic lineup or physical lineup, the administrator is not aware of whether the suspect is included in such photographic lineup or physical lineup; and
(E) Regardless of whether an identification is made, law enforcement will continue to investigate the crime; and
(3) When conducting a photographic lineup or physical lineup, the administrator should preserve the outcome of the procedure by documenting any identification or nonidentification result obtained from a witness. All witness responses to the photographic lineup or physical lineup participants should be documented using the witness´s own words, either in writing or with an audio or video recording.

State Rep. Stephanie Stuckey Benfield is the author of this welcome piece of legislation, and has made significant progress in bringing the interested parties together to move it through the legislative process over the last couple of years.

Unfortunately, law enforcement officials continue to resist the resolution, despite the systemic wrongful conviction problem that continues to plague the Georgia criminal justice system.

[Terry Norris, executive vice president of the Georgia Sheriff’s Association] told Committee Members that while the resolution is not legally binding, he still feels the State is dictating to law enforcement what to do.

Given that law enforcement agencies across the state have failed to adopt well-settled best practices on their own and the substantial cost associated with failing to do so, a legislative mandate hardly seems out of line. We’ll be following this one closely.