Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Guest Shot: Troy Davis case: Execution clearly would be callous act

This opinion was originally published in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution on October 21, 2008.

Troy Davis case: Execution clearly would be callous act

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Georgians are known for their fairness, faith and decency. Unfortunately, Georgians may become known for something that runs directly counter to our core values if we proceed with the execution of Troy Anthony Davis on Monday. I have served on the state Senate Judiciary Committee for 12 years, and while I am opposed to the death penalty, even supporters can agree that we do not want to see an innocent person executed.

Last Tuesday, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to consider if the death penalty should be barred in cases where there are substantial claims of innocence when it turned aside the appeal of Davis, an inmate on Georgia’s death row.

Justice is not served when the courts refuse to hear substantial claims of innocence. In Davis’ case, such claims have never been given a fair hearing in a court of law as a result of procedural bars.

Grave doubts permeate Davis’ case. In the years following his conviction, seven of the state’s nine non-police witnesses have recanted in sworn affidavits or changed their testimonies. Several have cited police coercion at the time of the crime. No court has ever heard testimony from the individuals who came forward after conviction alleging that one of the state’s original eyewitnesses is the actual killer of Officer Mark MacPhail.

No physical evidence tied Davis to the crime and a weapon was never found. He was convicted solely on the basis of faulty eyewitness testimony — the single greatest cause of wrongful convictions nationwide. Eyewitness misidentification accounted for 75 percent of wrongful convictions in more than 200 DNA exonerations.

Georgians have become aware of just how unreliable eyewitness identification evidence is as we have watched seven men exonerated — all convicted on the basis of eyewitness testimony — after spending years in prison for crimes they didn’t commit.

Willie Otis “Pete” Williams is one of those men. Williams spent nearly 22 years in prison for crimes he didn’t commit. Three people testified on the witness stand that he was the attacker in two separate incidents, one of which was a brutal rape. When asked of her certainty after identifying him, the survivor of the rape reported that she was 120 percent sure that she had picked out the right man. However, DNA evidence proved these identifications were incorrect.

Some states are beginning to move away from the death penalty because of growing concerns about innocence, unfairness, discriminatory application, lack of efficacy and other reasons. The death penalty was intended to be reserved for the worst offenders, but in practice, it is arbitrary and unfair. The system is fraught with error, plagued by poor legal representation, and discriminates on the basis of income, race and geography. Since executions resumed in May, all but one has been carried out in the South.

By choosing not to hear Davis’ claims, the U.S. Supreme Court and the Georgia state courts ostensibly declared that it is permissible to execute a convicted person who could likely prove his innocence. This is a standard civilized society should not accept.

It will be a travesty of justice for Georgia and our nation if an innocent person is executed. Proceeding with the execution of Troy Davis is callous, careless and irreversible.

Vincent Fort, a Democrat, represents Senate Dist. 39 in Atlanta.

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