Troy Davis Case Reveals Big Problem with Ultimate Punishment

Troy Davis was convicted and executed for the murder of Officer Mark McPhail in Savannah, Georgia. During his trial in 1991, seven witness testified that they saw Davis shoot Officer MCPhail, and two others testified that Davis had confessed to them.

After Davis was convicted he appealed his conviction and sentence, but the appellate court affirmed both. He then alleged that his lawyers were ineffective, a claim that was denied in State court but eventually ended up in Federal court. From 1996 and thereafter, most of the witnesses who testified against him began to change their story. Five witnesses recanted, stating they had been coerced by the police. Three new witnesses said that another man had confessed to having committed the murder. In 2009 the Supreme Court ordered that a hearing be held in order to determine whether Davis could prove his innocence. Although the court hearing the evidence concluded that there was doubt raised concerning Davis’ guilt, Davis could not establish his innocence. In September 2011, all of his appeals exhausted, Davis was executed.

A jury found Troy Davis guilty beyond a reasonable doubt in 1991 and sentenced him to death. I think it fair to say, however, over the ensuing years, enough witnesses recanted or changed their stories, and sufficient evidence arose implicating another man, that reasonable doubt was raised about Davis’ guilt. The law, however, required that in order for Davis to avoid execution, once a jury had concluded that he was guilty beyond a reasonable doubt, he had to prove his innocence. Although Troy Davis could raise reasonable doubt about his guilt he could not prove his actual innocence.

Most people who support the death penalty feel secure in the reliability of the convictions due to the fact that the defendant had to have been found guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. But evidence does not necessarily remain static. In some cases, the evidence available in trial might indicate someone is guilty beyond a reasonable doubt, but later evidence might arise raising reasonable doubt about their guilt. In such cases, when reasonable doubt exists, but the condemned cannot prove his innocence, should we, as a society, be comfortable with the imposition of the death penalty?

I submit we should not be. If reasonable doubt arises at any time concerning a defendant’s guilt, the death penalty should come off the table. Even if one believes that Troy Davis probably killed Officer McPhail, if there is a reasonable chance that he was innocent, our courts have presided over a grave injustice. The courts seem to have put a greater emphasis on the finality of the conviction than being assured that only a guilty man pay with his life for Officer McPhail’s murder.

I also think this case reveals a larger problem with the concept of rendering the ultimate punishment. What if the witnesses who recanted in the Troy Davis case only did so after he had been executed? Guilt beyond a reasonable doubt is not the same as 100% certainty. Unless we are a 100% certain of someone’s guilty there always a chance that evidence will later arise proving a convicted person’s innocence. Do we want to live in a society in which evidence could establish the innocence of someone after they have been executed?

Mick Mickelsen is a nationally recognized criminal trial attorney with more than 30 years of experience defending people charged with white-collar crimes, drug offenses, sex crimes, murder, and other serious state and federal offenses.