By Elizabeth Wong, Associate DirectorA week ago today, much of the world watched in disgust as Georgia executed a man who may have been innocent of the crime for which he lost his life. Troy Davis’ story, provided in more detail below, is one that shocks our sensibilities and causes us to look back in wonder about American values. Could we have really executed an innocent man? Did we just kill someone when there was so much doubt as to his guilt?
Virginia itself had come close to executing an innocent man. Earl Washington, Jr. was on death row, but was fortunately granted clemency shortly before his execution. Washington was coerced into confessing to a crime he didn’t commit, but later vindicated by DNA testing and subsequently granted a full pardon.
Davis’ and Washington’s cases should serve as reminders that capital punishment is not the answer to anything. It is not a deterrent to crime; it is incredibly costly; it undermines confidence in our government; and it keeps the United States out of step with other western democracies, all of which have banned it. Our justice system, as the Supreme Court once ruled, is simply too fraught with imprecision, error and bias to be trusted to take lives. We know that innocent people do get convicted and that they have been executed.
Regardless of Davis’ guilt or innocence, we here in Virginia stand with capital punishment opponents across the country and around the world in saying, “We are Troy Davis.” We will continue to work tirelessly for the abolition of state executions in the Commonwealth and to advocate for reform of the death penalty.
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The following post was written by Tanya Greene of the National ACLU and posted on the ACLU’s Blog of Rights on September 22, 2011.
Last night, Georgia strapped down an innocent human being and forced lethal poison into his veins until he died. In your name; in my name, unashamed and unhesitating.
This case had most of the worst of what we have come to fear from our criminal justice system — racism, lying witnesses, shoddy police work and innocence ignored.
The case of Troy Davis was corrupted by implications of racism from the very beginning — a black man accused of killing a white police officer, prosecuted by a district attorney in the Georgia county that has produced one-third of the state's exonerations and 40 percent of its death row exonerations.
No physical evidence links Davis to the crime (the Georgia Bureau of Investigation's ballistics "evidence" was unreliable, and supposed "bloody shorts" were not linked to the case and probably were not bloody at all); the conviction was based solely on eyewitness testimony. But all but two of the state's non-police prosecution witnesses have recanted and admitted they were pressured by police to claim falsely that Davis was the killer. One of the remaining two state witnesses is Sylvester Coles, the man who may be the actual killer. A witness testified in 2010 that he saw Sylvester Coles shoot Officer Mark MacPhail; another witness who also heard a confession by Coles was not permitted to testify at that hearing.
Given this information, one of the original trial jurors told the Georgia Board of Pardons and Parole, "I feel, emphatically, that Mr. Davis cannot be executed under these circumstances." But her plea, and that of a couple other jurors from the case, fell on death ears.
Former President Jimmy Carter, Pope Bendict XVI, former FBI Director William Sessions, former Georgia Supreme Court Chief Justice Norman Fletcher, Larry Thompson, former deputy US Attorney and Bob Barr, former US Attorney and Congressman, most of them staunch supporters of capital punishment, all called for state's parole board to grant clemency in this case. But their pleas fell on deaf ears.
More than one million petition signatures, including 40,000 from Georgians (many from readers of this blog), plus letters from 1,500 attorneys and 3,000 religious leaders, and 300 demonstrations worldwide with crowds in the thousands also called for the parole board to grant clemency. But our pleas — the pleas of the people — fell on deaf ears, too.
In the names of the documented 138 wrongfully convicted people sentenced to die previously in this country and the many more to come — because we have every proof the system is fatally flawed — we OBJECT! Already, Georgia has wrongfully sentenced five innocent men to die. Last night it killed one.
Georgia executed a man who is innocent the same week Pennsylvania issued a 300+ page report on preventing wrongful convictions.
The procedural technicalities which courts have cited to prevent this injustice have been offered up to the altar of finality. Finality is supposed to be a benefit for the victims. There is nothing more final than last night's execution. But it left me wondering — is the certainty of Troy Davis' death more important for the victim's family than the certainty of his guilt? Based on my own loss of two cousins to murder, I fear that this may not be the end of suffering for MacPhail's family, especially because the real killer may still be on the streets of Savannah. And now Davis' family also knows the unbearable pain of losing a family member unjustly killed.
The relief sought for Davis was life in prison without parole, with no hope of release. The Georgia Board of Pardons and Parole was only asked to grant Davis the opportunity to live — so that all the errors in his case would not result in an irreversible error. So that once he is finally exonerated, he would be alive to experience it.
How was this not a "legal" lynching? Who are we as a society to allow it? What lessons has this experience taught our children? We must continue to fight a system that disrespects people so viciously and so finally, all the while claiming fair proceedings in the name of justice.
Troy Davis' execution must compel even more people to object — not in our name!
The thousands of people who took peacefully to the streets to protest this barbarous execution chanted "I am Troy Davis".
Until we win, I, too, am Troy Davis.
Join the fight to protect the innocent and end the death penalty.