Reliability of Eyewitness Testimony: What We Learned From Troy Davis

Brenda Forrest, one of the jurors who convicted Troy Davis and sentenced him to death, told CNN that in 1991 she believed: “He was definitely guilty.  All of the witnesses, they were able to I.D. him as the person who actually did it.”

justice scalesHowever, years after the trial, Forrest backtracked as the case against Davis began to unravel, and went on to say that, knowing what she knows now about the witness recantations,  she would have voted to acquit Davis of the crime for which he was put to death September 21.

Eyewitnesses do seem credible to jurors.  After all, they were there.  And back in 1991 when Troy Davis’ fate was being decided, eyewitnesses seemed credible to courts too.  Not so much any more.  Decades of studies have exposed how shaky human memory is, and how little eyewitness evidence should be trusted. Ironically, for Davis, this meant that a form of evidence deemed reliable enough to convict him in 1991 was considered too untrustworthy in 2010 to be considered “clear and convincing” proof of his innocence.


Troy Davis Hearing: Landmark Opportunity for Justice

The hearing at the Savannah federal district court tomorrow is both historic and unprecedented.  Never before has the U.S. Supreme Court ordered a hearing to determine if it is unconstitutional to execute someone who is innocent. While this hearing is of the utmost importance to Troy Davis and the entire Savannah community, it also carries great legal significance.

Following his conviction in 1991, the case against Davis has unraveled, with seven of the nine witnesses recanting or contradicting their original testimony. After spending 19 years on death row and facing three execution dates, Davis has been given an opportunity to present evidence pointing to his innocence in a court of law.

This is a momentous opportunity that Amnesty International worked for and welcomes. But the burden of proof has been turned on its head. The court has set a very high bar: rather than ‘innocent until proven guilty,’ Davis must clearly prove he is innocent.

With 138 death row prisoners having been exonerated since 1973, it is more than a possibility that innocent people will be executed in the United States. It is inevitable in a broken system. The justice system should therefore be especially concerned with cases like Davis.’

Even as truth and justice are sought, we cannot forget the tragedy of a life lost. Mark Allen MacPhail was the innocent victim of a terrible murder. It is important to remember that the Savannah community lost a brave public servant, and acknowledge Officer MacPhail’s family during this difficult time. It is our sincere hope that this hearing will shed more truth on what happened the night of his murder and that justice will finally be served.

Larry Cox is the Executive Director of  Amnesty International USA.  He is currently in Savannah, GA to attend Troy Davis’ evidentiary hearing.