Former Savannah DA Spencer Lawton contacted us today to clear up a misunderstanding arising from an interview he gave to the Daily Report on Wednesday in which he reflected on the Troy Davis case. In the story on the interview, which we posted the afternoon before Davis was executed, Lawton complained that the media “repeated time and time again that there was no physical evidence at trial, which was a bald falsehood,” citing clothing as an example of physical evidence.
In an email to us today, Lawton wrote:
“It’s true that the clothing (shorts found where Davis was living and later found to have human blood on them) was an item of evidence that implicated Davis in the course of the police investigation, but it was not put in evidence at trial. I’ve usually cited the ballistics evidence – shell casings from Davis’ shooting a guy in the face earlier that day (for which he was convicted), matching shell casings from the scene of the MacPhail murder – as physical evidence that was entered at trial and that has been ignored by his supporters in the media and elsewhere.
“I apologize for having caused this misunderstanding.”
We note that ballistics evidence was challenged by Davis’ legal team in court filings on Wednesday in the hours before the execution. Judge Thomas A. Wilson of the Towaliga Circuit, who handled Davis’ last state habeas petition, said the challenge came too late in the process and had already been rejected as immaterial by a federal judge last year.
Here is the story again, which no longer includes Lawton’s misstatement.
With the scheduled execution of Troy Anthony Davis just hours away, the man who prosecuted him two decades ago defended the state’s efforts in the case and railed against the media that he said helped stir a boiling pot of controversy over Davis’ impending death.
Davis was scheduled to be executed at 7 p.m. Wednesday for the 1989 murder of Mark Allen MacPhail, a Savannah police officer who was shot when he came to the aid of a homeless man being beaten in a Burger King parking lot.
Although efforts by Davis’ supporters to press his claims of innocence in the courts and before the state Board of Pardons and Paroles have come up short, long-shot bids to save his life were still being pursued Wednesday.
Spencer Lawton Jr., who retired from the Chatham County district attorney post in 2008 after 28 years in the job, has in large measure declined to speak out on the case, citing a policy of not discussing pending cases. In several instances, however, he has written op-ed pieces or spoken to reporters, apparently when he thought the case was at a practical end. On Wednesday morning, he shared his thoughts about the matter in a telephone interview with the Daily Report.
“The thing I’m most upset by is the way the media have dealt with it,” said Lawton. He said the coverage was one-sided, adding he was in part to blame because of his reticence to speak publicly. But if the media had done their job and looked into the record, he said, he wouldn’t have had to say anything.
A key aspect of the message trumpeted by Davis’ supporters was that most of the non-law enforcement witnesses who had testified for the state at trial had since recanted their testimony, and Lawton questioned the credibility of those new statements.
“The horror, in my opinion, is the appearance of doubt has morphed into doubt itself,” he said.
“The witnesses got every encouragement from Davis’ lawyers to recant their immediate testimony at trial,” Lawton said. “They stood by their stories.”
Lawton said he wondered how the new statements had been gathered from the witnesses, adding he didn’t know how the recantations had been collected and wasn’t accusing Davis’ lawyers of unethical behavior. But he said he wished the media had asked more questions about the gathering of new statements, and he expressed doubts that the witnesses had spontaneously changed their stories.
“These witnesses didn’t just wake up and say … ‘I’ve got to talk to a defense lawyer,’” he said.
Although Davis’ supporters have emphasized they have counted among their numbers people who aren’t against the death penalty, such as former congressman and U.S. attorney Bob Barr, the charge has been led by organizations opposed to capital punishment, in particular Amnesty International and the NAACP. Lawton said he wouldn’t be at the prison in Jackson for Wednesday’s scheduled execution, and he said for all he cares, the state could abolish the death penalty.
“I’m not a morally fixated opponent of the death penalty, but nor did I look for more raw meat to chew on,” he said.
But Lawton said he doesn’t think the Davis case shows the death penalty places undo pressure on prosecutors to handle a case perfectly.
“All of this hasn’t happened because of some error at trial,” he said. “This delay has been caused by the engineering of the appearance of doubt.
“It was a straightforward murder case,” he added. “It’s not a matter of having to do things more perfectly.”
Lawton also expressed sympathy not just for MacPhail’s family, but Davis’ relatives, as well.
“I’m deeply troubled by the effect of all of this on the victim’s family [and] on Davis’ family. His sister never did anything to deserve what she’s been through,” he said.
Members of MacPhail’s family have been widely quoted as expressing impatience with delays in Davis’ execution. Lawton said as a prosecutor he generally took the wishes of victims’ families into account when deciding whether to seek the death penalty.
However, he said, “I never tell them the responsibility is on them for what the state does.” Moreover, he said victims’ families shouldn’t have to choose between seeking something less than the full punishment allowed under the law and 20 years’ of agony.
“It is abhorrent that it has taken this long,” he said. “We’ve been undone by our own virtue.”
He said the unusual evidentiary hearing held before U.S. District Judge William T. Moore Jr. last summer—a hearing long sought by Davis’ attorneys, only to have Moore rule he didn’t find Davis’ evidence of innocence compelling—was a positive development but one that took too long to happen.
“The whole thing should have happened faster, is all I’m saying, and for that I blame the system,” he said.
Lawton said he never doubted his successor, Larry Chisolm, would carry through on the state’s efforts to see Davis executed, although he explained that his only knowledge of Chisolm’s position on the matter comes from Chisolm’s presentation to the parole board on Monday.
Chisolm defeated Lawton’s former deputy and his co-prosecutor on the Davis case, David T. Lock, to win election to the DA’s post in 2008 and has been largely silent on the Davis matter. “He made the state’s presentation and supported the verdict and sentence,” said Lawton.