Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Guilty Until Proven Innocent

According to The Innocence Project, 273 ex-felons in American prisons have been exonerated through the use of DNA testing - including 17 who have served time on death row.  In theory, our justice system is based on an assumption of innocence until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.  However, once you have been found guilty, the burden of proof is reversed: You must prove your innocence to a Byzantine bureaucracy before justice is finally served. Of those 273 wrongful convictions, innocent victims of a flawed justice system served an average of 13 years in prison before exoneration and release. Thirteen years! For crimes they did not commit! Attributable to false testimony. Faulty evidence! Police coercion! And/or prosecutorial abuse!

Troy Anthony Davis is scheduled for execution later today.  He was convicted in the murder of Savannah police officer Mark MacPhail, who was working part-time as a security guard when he intervened between several men having an argument in a parking lot.  One of the men, Sylvester Coles, implicated Davis in the killing. No murder weapon was ever found, and no physical evidence linked Davis to the crime.

Years later, 7 of the original 9 witnesses who linked Davis to the killing recanted all or part of their stories.  New witnesses implicated Coles in the crime.  State and federal appeals courts found those recantations unpersuasive and declared that Davis had failed to provide sufficient proof of innocence [my bold].

Among those who petitioned the courts for a new trial or evidentiary hearing: Amnesty International, NAACP, former President Jimmy Carter, Al Sharpton, Pope Benedict XVI, Desmond Tutu, former Georgia Congressman Bob Barr, and former FBI Director and Judge William Sessions.

One would think a continuing search for truth and justice should take precedence over a lust for revenge.  However, once convicted, you are presumed guilty until proven innocent beyond a reasonable doubt.  Yesterday, the Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles denied Troy Anthony Davis a petition of clemency.  His execution is scheduled for 7:00 PM today.


  1. Octo,

    I think we are all familiar with the old saying, "Justice too long delayed is justice denied." It's been two decades since this man was convicted, and once again, we see that the death penalty is incompatible with modern notions of justice.

    I've always understood the urge to cut a person down in his sins -- that kind of anger at vicious degenerates who harm the innocent is something I think everyone "gets," but that isn't what lethal injection or the electric chair does ten, fifteen, twenty or more years after the alleged crime.

    That's why the death penalty is wrong: it's proper and necessary to allow lengthy appeals to ensure that you've got the right person, so there's no way the eventual penalty can amount to the near-instant "cutting down" the worst criminals no doubt deserve. In a perfect world, if you could absolutely KNOW that a man had, say, strangled an infant in its crib, or raped and murdered a schoolgirl, it might be simple justice to shoot the bastard dead. But we don't live in that world -- we live in a world populated with no small number of fools, bigots, drug-addled, frightened liars, strong-arm cops, incompetent or biased or harried lawyers and judges, etc. I don't know much about the Davis case, but things like this must be factored in if they're present, as some have claimed they are. It's clear that a lot of concerned observers don't believe this has been done.

    The original case seems to have been murky, relying not on physical evidence but instead on "eyewitness" testimony, some of which has subsequently come into severe question. The case itself should not have been a death penalty candidate (if indeed one is in favor of that penalty, which I'm not) precisely because there wasn't the sort of physical evidence that might have provided more certainty about the verdict.

    It is my sincere hope that they give this man a stay and avoid what could be an awful and irrecoverable miscarriage of justice.

  2. "... the death penalty is wrong ..."

    Yes, I agree. Absolutely (no pun intended) dead wrong, especially taking into account the flawed institution called our "Criminal Injustice System." Once executed and declared dead, there is no restitution for a wrongful conviction.

    I had been tracking this story for weeks but, frankly, hesitated to post anything because the story is so damn depressing. Yet, I would have felt profoundly guilty for ignoring it (and admit thereby an almost total emotional detachment while writing this post).

    Years ago when I was living in London, I was myself the victim of a crime - attacked by three muggers on the street one evening on my way home from school. Slashed with box cutters, I ended up in hospital for a week and still to this day suffer an occasional flashback.

    About six months later, I received a call from Metropolitan police. They had rounded up a street gang and asked if I would come in for a lineup to identify them. Not behind glass as our lineups are conducted, but face-to-face. I could walk around and among them, as if inspecting livestock. At one point, the detective whispered in my ear: "Third from the right."

    In response, I said that the attack was late in the evening, no street lamps, and 6 months ago, "sorry officer," and left the precinct station.

    I felt twice abused and humiliated that day - first from the original assault, and subsequently from the prompting of the officer. Perhaps, I had blocked out all visual memory of my attackers; trauma works that way.

    Today, I still have a signs of a 4-inch gash on the left side of my face (carefully stitched together by the British emergency room physicians), but the scar is insignificant compared with the torment of that memory.

  3. (O)CT(O), I wanted to post on this today as well, but was too depressed and despairing to do so. I will cross-post this at PE with, of course, attribution. You've captured what I felt in my heart.

    What possible harm would come in delaying the execution? Is there a difference in capital cases between "reasonable doubt" and "minimal doubt?" Am I naive to think that ANY DOUBT, whether it has a modifier attached to it or not, is reason enough to stop the execution?

    From The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, 9/20/2011:

    "This is the fourth time the state of Georgia has set an execution date for Davis. On three prior occasions, he was granted stays -- twice just hours before his execution was to be carried out.

    On one occasion, the U.S. Supreme Court stepped in and ordered an extraordinary hearing, giving Davis the chance to clearly establish he was an innocent man. But a Savannah judge, after hearing two days of testimony, ultimately ruled that while Davis’ new evidence “cast some additional, minimal doubt on his conviction, it is largely smoke and mirrors.”

  4. I have commented on this.

    We are entitled to a jury of our peers. Our peers are not capable of evaluating the evidence. To understand what is going on, you have to be scientist, lawyer, forensics expert, and detective, possess skills in critical thinking, logic and analysis. Our peers lack all of these abilities.

    They are not qualified to find anyone guilty "BEYOND A REASONABLE DOUBT." As soon as they claim to have figured out that someone is guilty beyond reason, they should be disqualified from serving on the jury on that basis alone. Clearly, they are biased and utterly arrogant. It is like me saying I can repair the ozone layer with chewing gum and spackle and I am sure that I can, beyond a reasonable doubt. I don't know what the ozone layer really is, but that's OK, because I don't even know what chewing gum really is; and what is spackle, anyway?

    Now get me tools (and wrigley's).

  5. John,
    I thought OJ meant orange juice, which, everyone knows, contains lots of vitamin C and is supposed to be good for you. Besides everyone knows OJ grows on trees, and no witness has been able to place OJ at the crime scene. Of course, orange juice is innocent! Your argument against capital punishment is powerful and persuasive.

    John, we have an opening here at the Swash Zone for an Amoeba-in residence to offer us a unique unicellular perspective un-encumbered by organ systems or government, a perspective that brings us closer to our roots. What do you say? Are you game?

  6. The Supreme Court has turned down the appeal, and Davis will no doubt be executed momentarily. I CONDEMN THIS IMPENDING ACT AS A HORRIFYING MISCARRIAGE OF JUSTICE. Seven of Nine original witnesses recanted their testimony -- how the hell could it possibly be proper to put a man to death after that has happened?

  7. I wonder if the republican governor of GA will be reelected. Democrats held the gubernatorial office there for more than 100 years prior to 2003. Maybe they can now get it back.

    I don't see how they are going to justify this.

  8. I've long believed that the court system should employ professional jurors who receive a salary regardless of their decision in a trial. They would be trained in not just law but psychology and behavioral analysis. A jury of one's peers scares the hell out of me. People bring every bias and wacko belief that they possess into the courtroom with them. Strong personalities are able to influence the direction that a jury takes. One of my favorite movies is Twelve Angry Men. It has a feel good outcome, but what if someone had worked equally as hard to persuade everyone of the guilt of the defendant?


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