One of the founding principles of the U.S. judicial system is that people are innocent until proven guilty. The controversial Troy Davis case in Georgia, however, has caused many to doubt whether the system is truly fair.
Davis was convicted in 1991 of murdering a Savannah police officer in 1989, but the verdict has drawn criticism due to inconsistent testimonies and the lack of physical evidence. On Tuesday, a Chatham County judge signed Davis’ death warrant and scheduled his execution between Sept. 21 and Sept. 28. This marks the fourth time in the past four years that the state has scheduled Davis’ execution. The new execution order is significant, though, because Davis has exhausted his appeals. His only hope of avoiding the death penalty is if the five-member Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles makes the rare move to grant him clemency.
The Davis case has long been a rallying cause for various human rights groups. According to Amnesty International,
The case against him consisted entirely of witness testimony which contained inconsistencies even at the time of the trial. Since then, all but two of the state’s non-police witnesses from the trial have recanted or contradicted their testimony.
Many of these witnesses have stated in sworn affidavits that they were pressured or coerced by police into testifying or signing statements against Troy Davis.
One of the two witnesses who has not recanted his testimony is Sylvester “Red” Coles — the principle alternative suspect, according to the defense, against whom there is new evidence implicating him as the gunman. Nine individuals have signed affidavits implicating Sylvester Coles.
Given this information, Amnesty and other groups have launched nationwide petition campaigns against Davis’ execution. But when the U.S. Supreme Court gave Davis the rare chance in 2009 to argue his innocence before a federal judge, there was not enough new information to overturn the original conviction. The judge wrote, “While Mr. Davis’s new evidence casts some additional, minimal doubt on his conviction, it is largely smoke and mirrors.” Others have countered that Davis should still not be executed because the original witnesses have admitted to lying about his guilt, which makes the evidence supporting his conviction murky at best.
Georgia is one of 34 states with the death penalty, and about 42 percent of death row inmates nationwide are black, like Davis. Public opinion on the death penalty varies, but Gallup data has found that a majority of Americans support capital punishment for convicted murderers. However, most people surveyed also said they thought innocent people had been executed in the past five years.
In a time when presidential hopefuls like Rick Perry are unapologetic about sentencing likely innocent men to death, the chances of Davis avoiding execution seem slim despite the numerous problems with his conviction. Even so, rights groups will be intensifying their efforts in the next few weeks to save another possibly innocent man from the death penalty.