Death Row Appeal Denied Despite Recanted Testimony of 7 Witnessesby Stephen Littau
ATLANTA (AP) The Georgia Supreme Court denied a new trial Monday for a death row inmate convicted of killing a Savannah police officer in 1989, even though several witnesses against him recanted their testimony.
Troy Davis, 39, was a day away from being put to death last July for the fatal shooting of 27-year-old Officer Mark MacPhail when the state Board of Pardons and Paroles issued a stay of execution.
MacPhail was shot twice after he rushed to help a homeless man who had been assaulted.
Davis appealed to the state Supreme Court, which ruled Monday in a 4-3 decision that a lower court did not err in refusing to grant Davis a new trial.
Writing for the majority, Justice Harold Melton said that the high court considered the core question of whether a jury presented with Davis’ allegedly new testimony would probably find him not guilty or give him a sentence other than death.
“Most of the witnesses to the crime who have allegedly recanted have merely stated that they now do not feel able to identify the shooter,” Melton wrote.
He added that one of the witness affidavits “might actually be read so as to confirm trial testimony that Davis was the shooter.”
“We simply cannot disregard the jury’s verdict in this case,” Melton wrote.
Davis’ lawyers say seven witnesses have recanted or contradicted their testimony that they saw Davis shoot the officer, saw him assault the homeless man or heard Davis confess to the slaying.
Three people who did not testify at trial have said in affidavits that another man, Sylvester Coles, confessed to killing the officer after Davis was convicted. After the shooting, Coles identified Davis as the killer.
This case is an example of why I have a problem with the death penalty. I have seen government on every level make too many mistakes for me to continue to hold the view that the government is competent enough to execute someone convicted of a death row offense. If a person serving a life sentence is wrongfully convicted but is later determined to be not guilty of the crime, at least the wrongfully convicted person can be set free. A person wrongfully executed cannot be resurrected.
Did Troy Davis kill Officer Mark MacPhail in 1989? I have no idea; this is the first I’ve heard of the case. I do, however, have a problem with the idea that 7 witnesses could recant their testimonies and a court could decide that such a development would not warrant a new trial. Justice Harold Melton says he believes that the witness affidavits “might” still identify Davis as the shooter.
This statement in itself is very chilling. Why guess what the new evidence might say; why not allow a new jury determine if Davis was the shooter based on the remaining forensic and circumstantial evidence? If the prosecution has a strong enough case they will not need the unreliable testimony.
Which leads me to another point: eyewitness testimony has been shown to be extremely unreliable. The Innocence Project has states the following regarding eyewitness misidentification:
Eyewitness misidentification is the single greatest cause of wrongful convictions nationwide, playing a role in more than 75% of convictions overturned through DNA testing.
While eyewitness testimony can be persuasive evidence before a judge or jury, 30 years of strong social science research has proven that eyewitness identification is often unreliable. Research shows that the human mind is not like a tape recorder; we neither record events exactly as we see them, nor recall them like a tape that has been rewound. Instead, witness memory is like any other evidence at a crime scene; it must be preserved carefully and retrieved methodically, or it can be contaminated.
Think about it: have you ever witnessed a crime? I have. One night, I saw several young Hispanic males breaking into a vehicle in the parking lot of the apartment complex I was living in at the time. I got a very good look at the face of one of the criminals because he spotted me in my pickup. The man walked right up to my window, looked directly in my eyes, put his finger to his lips to tell me to keep quiet, and then left (I nodded “yes” because I knew I was outnumbered and didn’t know if any of them had weapons; this was a very frightening experience). Even though I got a very good look at one of them, I could not confidently pick this individual out of a lineup even if the lineup was an hour or so after the fact. No matter how hard I tried, I could not remember exactly what he looked like. I could offer a description of the man but I would not be able to make a positive I.D.
This experience forever changed what I thought about eyewitnesses. Most eyewitnesses are probably very certain they have identified the right person but are mistaken. If the prosecution’s case hinges solely on eyewitness testimony of complete strangers, the man should be set free. Unfortunately, it seems that the Georgia Supreme Court has forgotten that the burden of proof is on the state; not the other way around.