The following is an editorial published by the Buffalo News on September 17, 2011.
Officials should reopen murder case or risk executing an innocent man
We don’t know if Troy Davis killed a police officer in Savannah, Ga. He was convicted of the crime, though, and has served two decades on Georgia’s death row. He is scheduled to be executed next week.
There’s just one problem, and it’s a huge one. Davis was convicted on the basis of eyewitness identification, which is notoriously unreliable. According to the Innocence Project, which challenges questionable convictions, seven of the nine eyewitnesses who testified at Davis’ trial have since recanted and new evidence points to another person as the real perpetrator. Yet Georgia is apparently ready to plunge ahead with the execution.
Western New Yorkers are familiar with wrongful conviction. Two defendants in high-profile cases were exonerated after having spent years in prison for crimes they did not commit. Anthony Capozzi served 21 years in prison for his wrongful conviction as the Delaware Park rapist, and Lynn DeJac spent nearly 14 years behind bars after being wrongfully convicted of murdering her daughter.
In fact, the Innocence Project counts 273 men and women it has helped to exonerate. These people have been cleared of responsibility not based on some legal technicality, but because they were actually innocent. Wrongful convictions occur for many reasons, but generally they can be traced to flawed investigative and courtroom procedures. Leading them are the problems associated with eyewitness identification.
The victims of the Delaware Park rapist identified Capozzi as their attacker. They didn’t do it on purpose; they thought he was the one. It was a mistake for which Capozzi paid dearly. So did the future victims of the real rapist, Altemio Sanchez, a sociopath who soon morphed into a serial killer.
But what if Capozzi had been executed?What if DeJac had been executed?How do you take that back? The state of Texas has already been shown to have put an innocent man to death. Texas doesn’t seem to care much one way or the other, and it’s not alone. Why would Georgia want to add to that list?
The Innocence Project has a reputation for thorough investigation, and it has raised significant questions about Davis’ conviction. It’s true that the case has dragged on for more than 20 years and that Davis has had previous opportunities to contest his conviction. But this is about life and death and a state’s reputation for its commitment to justice.
As we said, we don’t know if Davis killed police officer Mark MacPhail, who was only 27 when he was shot twice as he tried to help a homeless man under attack over some beer. This isn’t about protecting a cop killer, though we do oppose the death penalty. It’s about acknowledging the facts of wrongful conviction and ensuring that the right guy is being strapped to the gurney before taking steps that cannot be reversed. In this case, there appears to be enough doubt for the state of Georgia to step back.