Reasonable doubt

In about seven hours, Georgia will kill Troy Davis. Whatever one’s feelings about capital punishment, the fact that the state will apparently execute an innocent man is a profound American tragedy.

The story is probably familiar by now. In 1989, a late-night scuffle broke out in a Burger King parking lot in Savannah. When Mark MacPhail, an off-duty police officer, tried to intervene, someone pulled a gun and killed him. Soon after, Sylvester “Red” Coles went to the police with a lawyer, accusing Troy Davis of the shooting.

Some witnesses said it was Coles, not Davis, who killed MacPhail, but once the man-hunt began, law enforcement officials wanted to believe Davis was the man responsible for the slaying, and pressured witnesses accordingly. At this point, most of the witnesses who testified at trial have signed statements contradicting their identification of the gunman. Other witnesses who fingered Davis have said they made their stories up, facing police threats.

What we’re left with is a case in which a man was sentenced to death despite no physical evidence, based on the word of witnesses who have since recanted or contradicted their testimony.

Yesterday, the Georgia State Board of Pardons and Parole denied Davis’s late, and probably last, request clemency. The New York Times editorial board called the panel’s rejection “appalling.”

The Georgia pardon and parole board’s refusal to grant him clemency is appalling in light of developments after his conviction: reports about police misconduct, the recantation of testimony by a string of eyewitnesses and reports from other witnesses that another person had confessed to the crime. […]

The grievous errors in the Davis case were numerous, and many arose out of eyewitness identification. The Savannah police contaminated the memories of four witnesses by re-enacting the crime with them present so that their individual perceptions were turned into a group one. The police showed some of the witnesses Mr. Davis’s photograph even before the lineup. His lineup picture was set apart by a different background. The lineup was also administered by a police officer involved in the investigation, increasing the potential for influencing the witnesses. […]

Seven of nine witnesses against Mr. Davis recanted after trial. Six said the police threatened them if they did not identify Mr. Davis. The man who first told the police that Mr. Davis was the shooter later confessed to the crime. There are other reasons to doubt Mr. Davis’s guilt: There was no physical evidence linking him to the crime introduced at trial, and new ballistics evidence broke the link between him and a previous shooting that provided the motive for his conviction.

Guilty beyond a reasonable doubt? I don’t think so.