A terrible injustice in Georgia

This editorial was published in today’s edition of the Newark Star-Ledger.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

With just hours to go before he was scheduled to be put to death on Sept. 23, lawyers for Troy Anthony Davis asked the U.S. Supreme Court to halt his execution. The court did.

Yesterday, however, the justices refused to review Davis’ legal arguments, clearing the way for the case to return to Georgia, where he will likely be given a new execution date for the 1989 murder of Savannah police officer Mark Allen MacPhail.

While Davis was found guilty by a jury and the Georgia Supreme Court affirmed his sentence in a 4-3 vote, serious questions linger. Davis insists he is innocent.

To that, many would say, “So what? Everybody in prison believes he is innocent.”

No, not everyone is innocent, but some are. Since 1973, some 130 people who were convicted of murder have been exonerated. And, in the Davis case, his pleas of innocence should carry more weight because seven of the nine witnesses whose testimony led to his conviction have recanted. They now say their statements were the product of coercion.

Incredibly, a majority of the Georgia Supreme Court took the view that the jury verdict should not be overturned based on the recantations. We think the dissent had a more powerful argument. In it, Chief Justice Leah Ward Sears said the majority’s approach “fails to allow an adequate inquiry into the fundamental question, which is whether or not an innocent person might have been convicted or even, in this case, might be put to death.”

It’s incomprehensible that in a case with no physical evidence — no weapon, no fingerprints, no DNA samples — linking Davis to the crime, the nation’s highest court would summarily dismiss his claims and allow him to be executed.

Killing him in the face of evidence that he may be innocent is unacceptable for a civilized society.

Even proponents of the death penalty should demand that no one be executed if there is a chance he is innocent.

It is true that we have consistently opposed the death penalty, and we oppose it under all circumstances. New Jersey has banned it. Georgia has not. But even in states where the death penalty remains, it should not be used where there is any doubt about guilt. There must be a commitment to making sure everyone who is put to death has had access to a fair trial and appropriate review of the case on appeal.

That has not happened in the Troy Davis case.


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