By lex, on September 22nd, 2011
If like me, you’ve been too busy to follow much of the media discourse about the execution of Troy Davis, you’d probably have assumed that some unfortunate travesty of justice had been perpetrated. The words you would have heard were that there was “no physical evidence” linking Davis to the murder of Savannah police officer Mark McPhail. Or that nine eye witnesses had recanted their testimony identifying Davis as the shooter.
And that would have been that.
But Ann Coulter bothered to read the trial testimony:
Davis pulled out a gun and shot two strangers in public. What “physical evidence” were they expecting? No houses were broken into, no cars stolen, no rapes or fistfights accompanied the shootings. Where exactly would you look for DNA? And to prove what?
I suppose it would be nice if the shell casings from both shootings that night matched. Oh wait — they did. That’s “physical evidence.”
It’s true that the bulk of the evidence against Davis was eyewitness testimony. That tends to happen when you shoot someone in a busy Burger King parking lot.
Eyewitness testimony, like all evidence tending to show guilt, has gotten a bad name recently, but the “eyewitness” testimony in this case did not consist simply of strangers trying to distinguish one tall black man from another. For one thing, several of the eyewitnesses knew Davis personally.
The bulk of the eyewitness testimony established the following:
Two tall, young black men were harassing a vagrant in the Burger King parking lot, one in a yellow shirt and the other in a white Batman shirt. The one in the white shirt used a brown revolver to pistol-whip the vagrant. When a cop yelled at them to stop, the man in the white shirt ran, then wheeled around and shot the cop, walked over to his body and shot him again, smiling.
Some eyewitnesses described the shooter as wearing a white shirt, some said it was a white shirt with writing, and some identified it specifically as a white Batman shirt. Not one witness said the man in the yellow shirt pistol-whipped the vagrant or shot the cop.
Several of Davis’ friends testified — without recantation — that he was the one in a white shirt. Several eyewitnesses, both acquaintances and strangers, specifically identified Davis as the one who shot Officer MacPhail.
Now the media claim that seven of the nine witnesses against Davis at trial have recanted.
First of all, the state presented 34 witnesses against Davis — not nine — which should give you some idea of how punctilious the media are about their facts in death penalty cases.
Among the witnesses who did not recant a word of their testimony against Davis were three members of the Air Force, who saw the shooting from their van in the Burger King drive-in lane. The airman who saw events clearly enough to positively identify Davis as the shooter explained on cross-examination, “You don’t forget someone that stands over and shoots someone.”
Via Clayton Cramer, the findings of a federal evidentiary hearing (pdf) from last year. Interesting reading, some of it in conflict, but in balance pretty damning. The trial jury weighed the evidence, and found Davis guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. No judicial body, up to and including the US Supreme Court, found any reason to believe, 22 years later, that Davis had been deprived of his constitutional protections.
Innocent men have been awarded the death penalty in the US. At least 17 have been exonerated through the good works of the Innocence Project, which uses modern DNA techniques to prove their innocence. A feather will go in the cap of the person or persons who discover the identity of an innocent man who was actually executed, since that might tend to shift public opinion in this country, which is now strongly in favor of the ultimate sanction for those who commit particularly heinous crimes.
It hasn’t happened yet.