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

In Troy Davis’ trial in 1991, the jury rejected the defence argument that this was a case of mistaken identity and that it was Sylvester Coles and not Davis who had shot Officer McPhail. Instead, the jury accepted the prosecution’s theory and convicted Troy Davis on all counts. The trial moved into the sentencing phase.

At the time of Troy Davis’ trial in 1991, support for the death penalty in the USA was far stronger than it is today. Death sentencing rates in the United States were approaching their zenith. Some 268 people were sentenced to death in the country in 1991. Death sentencing would peak in the next few years – reaching its apex of 317 new death sentences in 1996 – before beginning to drop off. In 2004 and 2005, for example, there were 138 and 128 new death sentences respectively – each only about half of the 1991 total. Factors contributing to this reduction in juries passing death sentences are believed to include the number of wrongful convictions in capital cases, a diminished belief in the deterrence value of the death penalty, and the availability of the sentence of life imprisonment without the possibility of parole. In other words, a greater public awareness of the possibility of irrevocable mistakes, coupled with increased confidence that public security can be ensured by locking up defendants for life rather than killing them, has led to a greater reluctance among capital jurors to pass death sentences.(31)

At the time of Troy Davis’s trial, jurors in Georgia did not have the option of life imprisonment without parole as an alternative to the death penalty.(32) In addition, by that time there had been "only" 150 executions carried out across the USA since executions resumed in 1977. There have been more than 900 executions since his trial. Indeed, in the late 1980s, it was being suggested that the average capital juror in the USA "may well not believe – at the time he or she votes for sentence – that a death sentence is likely to ever be carried out. Indeed, that juror may well believe that a death sentence may result merely in a longer prison term while the protracted appellate process follows its course".(33) In 1986, Georgia Supreme Court Justice Charles Weltner said: "Everybody believes that a person sentenced to life for murder will be walking the streets in seven years".(34)

Sixty-five per cent of all executions carried out in the USA between 1 January 1977 and 1 January 2007 occurred in the decade from 1995 to 2004. This period was accompanied by numerous revelations about the inequities inherent in the use of capital punishment. By the time of Troy Davis’s trial in 1991, for example, fewer than 40 people had been released from death rows since 1977 on the grounds of innocence. In the years since, more than 70 such cases have been uncovered, with the attendant publicity increasing as the total reached and surpassed 100.

At the sentencing phase of his trial, Troy Davis maintained his innocence and asked the jury to spare his life. His trial lawyers urged the jurors to consider any "little nagging lingering doubts" that they may have in their minds and not to pass a death sentence. Their appeals fell on deaf ears. On 30 August 1991, the jury backed the prosecution and sentenced Troy Davis to death for the murder of Officer Mark McPhail.

With the current state of public knowledge about the risk of errors in capital cases, about the repeated instances of prosecutorial misconduct and inadequate legal representation, and about the unreliability of certain witness testimony, and given the alternative of life imprisonment without parole, would a jury today – presented with the evidence from the 1991 trial – sentence Troy Davis to death?

The state’s evidence is not what it was 15 years ago, however. Therefore another question must also be asked. If the jurors from the original trial were presented with the evidence as it stands today, would they still support a death sentence?

The witnesses – recanted and new testimony