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Georgia Supreme Court to Hear Davis Case, Parole Board Delays Hearing

Photographs by Jonathan Springston

(APN) ATLANTA -- Concerned activists held a press conference at the State Capitol, Tuesday, August 07, 2007, to update the public on developments in the Troy Davis death row case, and to present witnesses regarding overall problems with the death penalty in this country.

Davis, who had faced a July 17, 2007, execution for the murder of Officer Mark McPhail in Savannah, Georgia, in 1989, had received a 90-day stay of execution on July 16, 2007, from the Georgia State Board of Pardons and Paroles until the Board could hear more testimony.

The Georgia Supreme Court voted 4-3 on August 03, 2007, to hear the Davis case after a Chatham County Judge Penny Haas Freesemann denied Davis's extraordinary motion for a new trial in July.

Haas Freesemann ruled "Davis's new evidence did not meet the legal standards for new trials," the Atlanta Journal-Constitution (AJC) newspaper wrote. "Some of the new evidence was cumulative to evidence Davis presented at trial, some was obtained as long as 10 years ago, some was based on inadmissible hearsay evidence, and some was not sworn testimony, the Judge said."

However, the Georgia Supreme Court has agreed to begin hearing oral arguments in November and perhaps eventually compel the Chatham County Court to open a new trial.

A fourth juror in Davis's original trial in 1991 has also recently signed a statement that if she had heard the new evidence at the time of the trial, she would not have convicted Davis, the AJC reported.

Also, Pope Benedict XVI recently issued a letter to Governor Perdue seeking to save Davis's life.

"In the name of Pope Benedict XVI, I am respectfully asking you to commute Troy's sentence to life in prison without parole," wrote Monsignor Martin Krebs, a US envoy for the Pope. Davis's "conviction was not based on any physical evidence, and the murder weapon was never found," Krebs wrote.

"The Pope continually exhorts all people, and especially those men and women who serve in government, to recognize the sacredness of all human life," Krebs wrote. "I reiterate the commitment of the Holy Father, Pope Benedict XVI, to uphold the sacredness and dignity of all human life, and I hope that you will give heed to his petition."

The Georgia Supreme Court decision prompted the Board, which was set to hear more testimony on August 09, 2007, to postpone that hearing until after the Georgia Supreme Court hears the case.

The Board also rescinded its 90-day stay of execution order until after the Georgia Supreme Court hearing. Board rules dictate that it can consider a clemency petition only when it appears all appeals options have been exhausted. Davis could appear before the Board again if this round of appeals fails.

"With the knowledge that numerous witnesses have identified another individual as the real killer, we know justice cannot be served by executing Davis, who might well be innocent," Laura Moye, Acting Director of Amnesty International USA's (AIUSA) Southern Regional Office, said.

Seven of nine original witnesses have recanted or changed their testimony since Davis's 1991 trial. Many have implicated Sylvester Coles, one of the nine who has not changed his story, as the real murderer.

"The state cannot return a human life once it extinguishes it," Sue Gunawardena-Vaughn, Director of AIUSA's Program to Abolish the Death Penalty, said in a press release obtained by Atlanta Progressive News. "The state cannot adequately compensate the wrongfully executed person's family for taking the life of their loved one. There is no posthumous clemency."

WRONGLY ACCUSED, RECANTING WITNESSES SHARE THEIR STORIES

AIUSA presented speakers at the press conference who either went to jail for crimes they did not commit or whose own testimony sent the wrong person to jail.

Darrel Hunt, a Black male, and Gary Drinkard, a White male, were convicted of crimes they did not commit due to prosecutorial misconduct, misleading or false witness testimony, and a rush to make a judgment.

Jennifer Thompson-Canino's testimony sent the wrong man to jail, even though she was positive the man she had originally identified as her attacker was the real rapist.

Thompson-Canino, a White female, was the victim of rape in 1984 while she was a college student in North Carolina. She was able to give police a detailed description of the attacker, a Black male, and picked the suspect out of both a photo lineup and a live lineup.

Due to the long duration of the attack, she could tell police how much the assailant weighed, how tall he was, and even gave detailed descriptions concerning the shape of his face and its features.

Ronald Cotton, who served 11 years of a life sentence in prison for the crime, turned out not to be the attacker.

"I knew this was the man. I was completely confident. I was sure," she said of Cotton.

DNA evidence confirmed in 1995 that Bobby Poole, who was serving life in prison at the time for a series of rapes and who had bragged to other inmates about his crime, was the real attacker.

"Although now [Cotton] is moving on with his own life, I live with the constant anguish that my profound mistake cost him so dearly," Thompson-Canino said.

She and Cotton are now close friends and she has spoken out in support of improving eyewitness identification procedures in order to reduce the potential for similar mistakes.

Mr. Hunt was convicted two times in North Carolina for an August 10, 1984, rape and murder outside of Winston-Salem he did not commit. Even though DNA evidence proved he did not do it in 1994, it still took over 10 years of appeals to clear his name.

Hunt's girlfriend initially told police that she and Hunt were together the night of the crime and he could not have done it.

The girlfriend, later arrested for larceny charges, said Hunt had admitted to her that he had committed the crime. She recanted before the trial, but prosecutors used the statement anyway. The North Carolina Supreme Court overturned the conviction in 1989 because of this and released Hunt on bond.

Hunt refused a plea bargain and was the subject of a second trial where he faced a new, all-White jury. The main witnesses from the first trial testified again and two jailhouse snitches testified Hunt had allegedly admitted to the crime while in prison. The jury sentenced Hunt to jail for life.

While DNA evidence cleared his name, judges ruled the results did not prove Hunt's innocence. At the request of Hunt's attorneys, DNA found at the crime scene was run in the state database in 2004 and matched that of another man in jail for another murder. Hunt was freed in 2005.

"What is happening... to Troy Davis is injustice that needs to stop," Hunt said. "It is our time to stand up and make our system work for all of us, not just for a few of us."

Mr. Drinkard was convicted and sentenced to death row in 1995 for the robbery and murder of an automotive junk dealer in Decatur, Alabama, even though he was at home at the time of the murder.

His conviction rested on the testimony of his half-sister, who faced charges in an unrelated robbery, and her common law husband, who faced similar charges as those faced by Drinkard's half-sister.

The half-sister agreed to implicate Drinkard in exchange for a clean record.

Drinkard also had the misfortune of being represented by lawyers who were not well-qualified. Two physicians could have testified--but never did--that Drinkard suffered a severe back injury shortly before the date of the crime which would have made it impossible for him to commit the crime.

The Alabama Supreme Court reversed Drinkard's conviction based on prosecutorial misconduct in 2000 and remanded the case for a new trial. Drinkard won acquittal in 2001 and was later presented to the US Senate Judiciary Committee to illustrate the need for competent lawyers for those facing the death penalty.

"The system is broken," Drinkard said. "I don't think the death penalty is appropriate for anyone. I think God is the only one who has the right to take a life."

124 EXONERATED IN 30 YEARS

Drinkard is one of 124 people in the United States to be exonerated from death row in the last 30 years. AIUSA and others argue this kind of statistic means innocent people could have already been executed.

Texas recently put Ruben Cantu to death for a crime he possibly did not commit. Bexar County District Attorney Sam Millsap, who prosecuted Cantu and is urging clemency for Davis, has drawn parallels between the two cases.

"It is clear there are haunting similarities... the absence of physical evidence, [plus] recanting witnesses, witnesses alleging police coercion, [and] the implication of another man in the crime," Millsap wrote in a letter to the Board.

"Prosecutors whose very best efforts may have produced unintended results in capital murder cases have a moral and ethical duty to accept responsibility for their mistakes," he added.

Five men, all of whom were Black, have been exonerated from death row in Georgia, the last occurring in 1991. Those men spent a total of 28 years on death row before their releases.

"Our legal system in this country is supposed to be based on fairness and equal justice under the law," Drinkard said. "I used to believe that... but the system doesn't work like they say. How many innocent people in this country, even in this state, are sitting on death row for crimes they didn't commit?"

About the author:

Jonathan Springston is a Senior Staff Writer for The Atlanta Progressive News and may be reached at jonathan@atlantaprogressivenews.com

Revised syndication policy:

Our syndicaton policy was updated June 2007. For more information on how to syndicate Atlanta Progressive News content, please visit: http://www.atlantaprogressivenews.com/extras/syndicate.html


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