USA: ‘Where is the justice for me?’: The case of Troy Davis, facing execution in Georgia

Report
February 1, 2007

USA: ‘Where is the justice for me?’: The case of Troy Davis, facing execution in Georgia


It is disturbing that anyone, let alone a Justice of the Supreme Court, should consider as "insignificant" the risk of wrongful convictions in capital cases given what is known about the repeated failures of the system. The risk was not insignificant to the more than 100 individuals sentenced to death since 1976 who spent, on average, more than nine years between conviction and exoneration.(11) Factors that contributed to these wrongful convictions include prosecutorial or police misconduct and inadequate legal representation.
Of particular relevance in Troy Davis’s case is the question of the reliability of the witness testimony used by the state to send him to death row. The problem of unreliable witness testimony as a source of error in capital cases has long been recognized. For example, a major study published in 1987 found that:
"By far the most frequent cause of erroneous convictions in our catalogue of 350 cases was error by witnesses; more than half of the cases (193) involved errors of this sort. Sometimes such errors occurred in conjunction with other errors, but often they were the primary or even the sole cause of the wrongful conviction. In one-third of the cases (117), the erroneous witness testimony was in fact perjured."(12)

In addition, "clear injustices perpetrated by the police compose nearly a quarter of the errors" identified in this study. The majority of the error attributable to the police came in the form of coerced statements, with the remainder accounted for by negligence and over-zealous police work. Such misconduct was a major contributor to the wrongful conviction of four Illinois death row inmates, who were pardoned by the state governor in 2003 on the basis that their confessions had been tortured out of them by the police.(13) The final report of the New Jersey Death Penalty Study Commission, released on 2 January 2007, noted the fallibility of eyewitness testimony in reaching the conclusion that "the penological interest in executing a small number of persons guilty of murder is not sufficiently compelling to justify the risk of making an irreversible mistake". For these and other reasons, the Commission has recommended abolition of the death penalty in New Jersey.(14)

The problem of unreliable witness testimony, some of it exacerbated or caused by police misconduct, has been illustrated in a number of the other cases of those released since 1976 from death rows in the USA on the grounds of innocence. For example: