Will Georgia Kill Again Despite Doubts?

Update Oct 4: A stay of execution has been granted to Marcus Ray Johnson. Superior Court Judge Willie Lockette has ordered that DNA evidence found last week by Albany police be evaluated. He will hold a follow up hearing in February, 2012.

Georgia is scheduled to execute Marcus Ray Johnson on Wednesday, October 5. This date appeared on the calendar the morning after the Peach State put Troy Davis to death despite unresolved doubts about his guilt.

As in the Troy Davis case, there is no physical evidence linking Johnson to the 1994 murder in Albany, Ga., of Angela Sizemore.  According to Johnson’s lawyers, his case was built on eyewitness testimony from individuals who did not even witness the crime but only placed Johnson with the victim in the hours before the murder.

Expert testimony about the problems with eyewitness identification evidence was not allowed at Johnson’s trial. According to the Innocence Project, 75 percent of wrongful convictions discovered by DNA testing have involved faulty witness identifications.


Georgia Kills Troy Davis

After a tense delay of more than 4 hours, the state of Georgia has just killed Troy Anthony Davis.

My heart is heavy.  I am sad and angry.  Georgia’s criminal justice system behaved with the viciousness of a defective machine, relentlessly pursuing his death while ignoring the doubts about his guilt that were obvious to the rest of the world.

Tonight we witnessed an abuse of power that exposed a justice system devoid of humanity, a dysfunctional destructive force in denial about its own deeply embedded flaws.

We could not ultimately stop Georgia’s machinery of death in this case, but the groundswell of activism Troy Davis has generated proves that people are hungry for a better system of justice.  This will be his legacy.  We will fight for a system of justice with more humanity, that accepts the possibility of mistakes, errors, and doubts.  A system of justice that believes that innocence matters.  A system of justice with more justice.

Let’s take a moment to honor the life of Troy Davis and Mark MacPhail. Then, let’s take all of our difficult feelings and re-double our commitment to the abolition of the death penalty.

not in my namePlease take this Pledge, and commit to working for abolition in your community, in your state, in your country, and in the world.

Tonight we mourn … tomorrow we organize!

Troy Davis Execution Set For Sept. 21

An execution warrant setting Troy Davis’ execution has been signed by a Chatham County judge.  The execution date has now been set for September 21st.

An execution is NOT inevitable.  This merely sets the clemency process in motion.  Before Sept. 21, the Georgia State Board of Pardons and Paroles will rule on whether Troy Davis’ sentence should be commuted, or whether the execution should be carried out as scheduled.  Previously, the Board stated that it would not allow an execution unless there was “no doubt” as to guilt.

Amnesty International will call an International Day of Solidarity for Troy Davis once we know a little bit more about the plans of the Parole Board.  Get started – organize for Troy now, and please check back here or at justicefortroy.org for further updates.

Troy Davis was convicted of murder in 1991. Nearly two decades later, Davis remains on death row — even though the case against him has fallen apart. Learn more about Troy’s case.

Troy Davis And Faulty Witness IDs

In this picture, the tiny figure in the parking lot across the street is approximately where Troy Davis was, and the camera is approximately where Dorothy Farrell was, when, according to her trial testimony, she saw his face at 1:30 am. (She, like most of the witnesses, has since recanted).

© Jen Marlowe

“[J]uries tend to ‘over believe’ eyewitness testimony”. So says the American Psychological Association in its amicus brief  for an upcoming U.S. Supreme Court case.  And Adam Liptak in the New York Times writes:

“ … it is perilous to base a conviction on a witness’s identification of a stranger. Memory is not a videotape. It is fragile at best, worse under stress and subject to distortion and contamination.”


Georgia Schedules Execution

Georgia has set June 23 as the date for Roy Blankenship’s execution.   Doubts about his guilt persist.  In February, the Georgia State Board of Pardons and Paroles did the responsible thing and granted a stay to allow for DNA testing that might exonerate Blankenship or implicate an alternative suspect.

Unfortunately, the available crime scene samples were too small and degraded and the testing was inconclusive.  There is still some evidence that points to another suspect; without quality physical evidence that can be conclusively tested, questions about Roy Blankenship’s guilt will probably never be resolved.

Today, Republican Ohio Governor John Kasich granted clemency to Shawn Hawkins, based on doubts that Hawkins committed the crime for which he was sentenced to die.  While pondering his decision, Kasich told the media that: “We are not going to go forward with an execution where we are not certain.”  This was the right, and common-sense, course of action, as it was right for the Georgia Board to grant Roy Blankenship a stay for DNA tests.  Given the continuing doubts about Blankenship’s guilt, the right course of action now would be to grant clemency and commute his sentence permanently.

Ohio: Angry Lawyering And Doubts About Guilt

Ohio’s Parole Board has voted 7-0 to recommend clemency for Shawn Hawkins due to doubts about his guilt and an angry lawyer that berated his jury.  Ohio Governor John Kasich does not have to follow this recommendation, but he should.  (And you can urge him to do so.)

Hawkins’ conviction rests mainly on the testimony of an eyewitness who has changed his story several times (and was initially a suspect before being granted full immunity).  There was no murder weapon found and Hawkins had several alibi witnesses.

Upset that his client was convicted despite such a weak case, Hawkins’ lawyer lashed out at (and vaguely threatened) the jury during the sentencing phase of the trial.  He warned them (according to the Parole Board’s report) that, if they issued a sentence of death, “what comes around goes around”.  No mitigating evidence was presented, and, not surprisingly, the jury came back quickly with a sentence of death.


So Inappropriate

Buried amidst the legal documents in Judge William T. Moore’s Troy Davis files is a letter from an ordinary Georgia citizen, a letter Judge Moore apparently asked his clerk to include in the docket.  It says simply:

When so much is contested, the penalty of death seems so inappropriate.

That makes sense to me.

The letter writer correctly observes that Troy Davis’ June evidentiary hearing settled nothing.  Witness testimony was all that was available, and, with no physical or scientific evidence, there was no foolproof way to resolve the conflicting stories and accounts that have been the major feature of this case for 20 years.  As a new Amnesty International short report makes clear, the Troy Davis case remains “less than ironclad”, and to carry out an execution under those circumstances would be a grave injustice.

Troy Davis was unsuccessful in proving his innocence before Judge Moore.  He faced an “extraordinarily high” burden of proof devised by the judge as part of his ruling that executing the innocent would be unconstitutional.  (The judge’s opinion was very long and issued in two parts; it can be found here and here.)   The judge found that “most reasonable jurors” would still vote to convict Davis; but this of course suggests that some reasonable jurors would vote to acquit.  It takes a unanimous jury to pass a death sentence in Georgia.

As the Amnesty report concludes:

Doubt still exists. This should be enough for even a death penalty supporter to oppose the irrevocable step of execution.

When in Doubt

When is it OK for the state to put a prisoner to death?  We at Amnesty International of course say “Never”.  (And two-thirds of the world’s nations agree with us.)  At the other end of the spectrum, US Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia says the state should be free to kill someone who has been convicted and sentenced to death in a “full and fair trial”, even if he can later show he is innocent.

The judge who presided over Troy Davis’ hearing in Savannah, GA, last month is likely to come down somewhere in the middle.  But where?  Amnesty International has just released a report that discusses Davis’ hearing and assesses what guidance there is internationally on this question. It turns out the world has a pretty common-sense suggestion for us.  If there is doubt about someone’s guilt, there should be no execution.

Of course the language of the Safeguards Guaranteeing Protection of the Rights of Those Facing the Death Penalty, adopted by the United Nations Economic and Social Council in 1984 and endorsed by the UN General Assembly, is a little wordier than that, but not much:

Capital punishment may be imposed only when the guilt of the person charged is based upon clear and convincing evidence leaving no room for an alternative explanation of the facts.

The Troy Davis case is buried in doubts.  Doubts from the witnesses whose recantations were are the heart of last month’s hearing, doubts from jurors (see pages 16-17), doubts from a former Georgia Supreme Court Justice who originally upheld his conviction, and even – with over 130 exonerations from death row since the 1970s – doubts about the reliability of the criminal justice system itself.

International opinion is slowly moving towards a consensus that all executions are an affront to human rights and human dignity, and an unacceptable abuse of power by the state.  Not everyone agrees with that yet, but for now can’t we at least agree that no one should be put to death when there is so much doubt?