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

February 1, 2007

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

"[F]rom that point on, the entire focus of this investigation was not in deciding and finding the truth of this case as to who actually committed these crimes that the defendant is now on trial for, but it was to find evidence to convict the defendant of these crimes… They bought Mr Coles’ story hook, line and sinker. They never considered Mr Coles to be a suspect… And they went out into this community, and they rounded up witnesses everywhere they could find them, and they paraded them in here… But what about the quality, the credibility of those witnesses?

As already noted, studies of why wrongful convictions in capital cases occur point to a number of contributory factors, including police error or misconduct. A review of this issue published in 1996 pointed out the following:
"We often talk of a miscarriage of justice as an error at trial, but that’s a mistake. The error occurs much earlier, in the investigation of a crime, when the police identify the wrong person as the criminal. If they gather enough evidence against this innocent suspect, the error will ripen into a criminal charge; if that charge survives the formal and informal processes of pre-trial screening, it will go to trial and a jury may confirm the mistake by a wrongful conviction…

For the most part, the pressure to solve homicides produces the intended results… But that same pressure can also produce mistakes. If the murder cannot be readily solved, the police may be tempted to cut corners, to jump to conclusions, and – if they believe they have the killer – perhaps to manufacture evidence to clinch the case. The danger that the investigators will go too far is magnified to the extent that the killing is brutal and horrifying, and to the extent that it attracts public attention – factors which also increase the likelihood that the murder will be treated as a capital case". (22)

This case involves the murder of a police officer, a crime which undoubtedly heightens emotions – among the authorities seeking to bring the perpetrator to justice, as well as within the community and the media.(23) Seventy-one of the 84 prospective jurors questioned during jury selection for Troy Davis’ trial indicated that they had heard about the murder from pre-trial publicity and/or had discussed the case with other people. Indeed, 32 of these individuals were rejected during jury selection on the grounds of their bias or prejudice. Nevertheless, only one of the jurors from the pool, who had been living outside of Savannah at the time, said that he had not known anything about the case. Troy Davis’ lawyers sought a change of venue for the trial away from Chatham County where the crime occurred. This motion was denied by the trial court.

When denying relief for death row inmates, it is common for an appeal court or an executive clemency authority to point to the deference to be afforded to the jury’s verdict in the original trial. Thus, in addition to the specific concern that the impartiality of Troy Davis’s trial may have been tainted by pre-trial publicity on the case, it is worth pausing to consider the more general question of who sits on the jury in a US capital trial.