Home > Compassion, Current, Legal, Politics > Guest Post: How Much Doubt?

Guest Post: How Much Doubt?

September 22, 2011 Leave a comment Go to comments

My newest co-writer over at ALDLAND, commodawg, shared his feelings on last night’s execution of Troy Davis, who was convicted of the 1989 murder of a Savannah, GA police officer:

How Much Doubt?

Stuck working late in the office last night, I found myself compulsively reloading the Atlanta Journal-Constitution page chronicling the minute-by-minute developments in the Troy Davis proceedings.

For those of you not familiar, Troy Davis was found guilty of murdering an off-duty police officer in Savannah and sentenced to death.  Since then, a majority of witnesses have recanted their testimony, including one who testified that Davis had confessed to him. Multiple problems with the police investigation, including police coercion and a lack of physical evidence, as well as Davis’ defense, have been uncovered.  At least one juror has said he would have voted against conviction.  Even former Texas judge and FBI Chief under Reagan, Bush, and Clinton, William Sessions, called for a stay of Davis’ execution.

Despite these developments, Davis was not given any reprieve, as the Georgia court hearing his case required not that he demonstrate that there was reasonable doubt in the State’s original case, but rather that he clearly establish his own innocence.  The court found the recantations and other exculpatory evidence unequal to this task, and the various appellate courts eventually upheld that determination.

Last night, as Davis’ lawyers tried unsuccessfully to avoid Davis’ 4th scheduled execution, I had a sinking feeling, and it was one that only deepened with the inevitable news that Davis had been executed after the U.S. Supreme Court denied his last minute plea.

Without much time to dwell on it last night, two pieces this morning brought a little more clarity to my feelings of angst.  First was a little rant on the legal blog Above the Law.  By far the more polemic of the two, it calls attention to the fact that people are getting lost in the question of Davis’ guilt or innocence, and not in the fact that execution is simply a form of state- and society-condoned murder.  It certainly jived with my own stance on the death penalty (and who doesn’t love positive-reinforcement?).  The second, a piece on Slate, took a more academic approach, asking to what extent we’re willing to sacrifice the certainty of knowing we’ve reached the correct verdict (in this case, convicting the right individual) for the goal of providing finality to the judgment and closure to the victim(s).  How much doubt is too much?  How much error — and there is no denying that errors occur — is acceptable?

Regardless of your stance on the acceptability of capital punishment in theory, are cases like Davis’ (or Cameron Todd Willingham’s) ever enough to dissuade you in practice?

More from commodawg here.

Categories: Compassion, Current, Legal, Politics
  1. AD
    September 23, 2011 at 4:43 pm

    First, my thanks to commodawg for lending his e-pen to this topic.

    Second, a follow-on article from Mike Sacks, formerly of First One @ One First and now of the Huffington Post, about why the U.S. Supreme Court seemed to delay in ruling on Davis’ request for a stay of his execution:

    “The Supreme Court’s order Wednesday night denying Troy Anthony Davis’ stay of execution states, in its entirety, ‘The application for stay of execution of sentence of death presented to Justice Thomas and by him referred to the Court is denied.’ This statement came four hours after the Court first received Davis’ appeal and three hours after he had been scheduled to die. The delay led some observers to wonder whether the justices were waiting for a colleague to finish a fiery dissent.

    “But there was no dissent. At 11:08 p.m., Davis, convicted for the 1989 murder of Officer Mark MacPhail, died by lethal injection.”

    While Sacks doesn’t answer the question, he does provide some explanation of why there may not have been a dissent in this case:

    “The inability to stop all executions has never been an impediment to the current more-liberal justices recording their disagreement in a capital order. That fact suggests to Robert C. Owen, visiting clinical professor at Northwestern University School of Law, that ‘the justices of the Court who might have been sympathetic to Davis’ claim of innocence did not feel they had legal authority to review the case.’

    “Indeed, by the time the stay application arrived at the Court on Wednesday evening, there was ‘very little meaningful review available,’ said Steiker. The Supreme Court can only review cases that present issues arising under federal law. In 2009, Davis came to the Court with the claim that he had evidence to prove his ‘actual innocence,’ which would have made his execution a violation of his right to life and liberty under the U.S. Constitution. In response, the Court ordered a federal district court to weigh Davis’ evidence of innocence, prompting Justice Antonin Scalia to write in dissent that ‘[t]his Court has never held that the Constitution forbids the execution of a convicted defendant who has had a full and fair trial but is later able to convince a habeas court that he is “actually” innocent.’ Ultimately, however, Davis could not convince the district court that he was actually innocent, and both the federal appeals court and the Supreme Court denied further review.

    “Legal observers say that marked the end of the line for Davis in the U.S. Supreme Court. It did not, of course, stop Davis’ lawyers from arguing in their stay application that there were “constitutional errors which have occurred in connection with the lower courts’ denial of his claims” of actual innocence. But, as the Georgia Attorney General’s Office argued in response, the U.S. Supreme Court’s decisions in earlier cases prevented the justices from reviewing Davis’ federal claims because the Georgia Supreme Court an hour earlier had denied his claims on ‘independent and adequate state law grounds.'”

    Read the rest of Sacks’ article at http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/09/23/troy-davis-supreme-court-delay_n_977754.html.
    More on Mike Sacks: https://questionspresented.wordpress.com/2010/09/15/the-value-of-citation-vol-ii-recognition-and-transparency.

  2. Pellucid
    October 5, 2011 at 4:45 am

    I love your blog, you should add instructions for the RSS feed feature so I can get automatic notifications of new blogs. If you can help me set it up please email me! Ii will bookmark you for now. Again Excellent Blog!

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