Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Death Row Inmate's Rare Chance to Prove His Innocence

Death Row Inmate's Rare Chance to Prove His Innocence


By Benjamin Todd Jealous


June 22, 2010 Special to CNN




Troy Davis was convicted of killing an off-duty police

officer and sentenced to death Benjamin Todd Jealous: 7 of 9

eyewitnesses have recanted or changed their testimony. He says

Supreme Court granted Davis a rare opportunity to challenge

evidence in court. He says Davis must prove his innocence in

hearing before a judge.


Editor's note: Benjamin Todd Jealous is president and CEO of the NAACP.


(CNN) -- On Wednesday the saga of death row inmate Troy

Anthony Davis will begin its last chapter. In an extremely

rare ruling last summer, the United States Supreme Court

ordered a federal judge in Georgia to grant Troy an

evidentiary hearing to prove his innocence.


The ruling is unusual in that the Supreme Court has not

granted this writ of habeas corpus in more than 50 years.

Their decision is a strong indication that they are concerned

about the constitutionality of executing the innocent -- as am I.


Although much work still must be done in our justice system

to ensure the innocent do not pay the price of the guilty,

the granting of this evidentiary hearing is a major step for

Troy Davis and for many other likely innocent prisoners

sitting on death row; Troy Davis will have an opportunity to

tell his side of the story and new evidence will be

considered in this nearly 20-year-old case.


The hearing will allow the testimony of witnesses who have

recanted or contradicted their original eyewitness

testimonies to be heard and examined in a court of law. At

long last, the courts will hear critical testimony that they

were prevented from hearing in the original trial.


Troy's journey to death row began in the summer of 1989, when

he was arrested in connection with the killing of an off-duty

police officer outside a Burger King restaurant in Savannah,

Georgia. Two years later he was convicted and sentenced to

death for a crime many believe he did not commit.


I had the privilege of meeting Mr. Davis almost a year ago,

and I was convinced of his innocence. My sense of his

innocence is impressionistic, but a close examination of the

case indicates there was no physical evidence that tied him

to the crime, no weapon was ever recovered and seven of the

nine eyewitnesses have recanted or changed their original

testimony in sworn affidavits, citing alleged police coercion.


One of the witnesses, a teenager, said the police threatened

to hold him as an accessory to murder, warning that he would

"go to jail for a long time" and would be lucky to ever get

out because a police officer had been killed.


Since that trial, several members of the jury have delivered

sworn statements to the court, indicating that their decision

was based on incomplete and unreliable evidence. Given the

murky timeline of the events in the dead of night,

eyewitnesses who changed their stories, the pressure placed

on the Savannah police department to promptly arrest and

convict a "cop killer," and the alleged coercion of

witnesses, it is easy to understand why some jurors have

admitted their uncertainty.


For nearly twenty years, Mr. Davis's life has hung in the

balance. Despite the prevalence of evidence and thousands of

people rallying to save him from execution, including the

NAACP, Amnesty International, former President Jimmy Carter,

actor/activist Danny Glover, former FBI director William

Sessions and conservative Congressman Bob Barr, the courts

stubbornly refused to hear Davis's claims of

innocence...until now.


It is the unjust reality of the death penalty that in our

nation that there are more than 3,300 people withering on our

nation's death rows, men and women who are almost universally

poor, disproportionately African-American and in some cases

innocent. Since 1973, according to the Death Penalty

Information Center, 138 people have been released from death

row with evidence of their innocence. Executing an innocent

person is a mistake that cannot be rectified.


We still have a long way to go before Troy has a chance at

life off death row. The standard of proof in the evidentiary

hearing turns our criminal justice system on its head. Mr.

Davis will be expected to prove his innocence rather than for

the state to prove his guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. This

is especially challenging given that the crime happened more

than 20 years ago and there is no physical evidence, such as DNA.


The Troy Davis case is the most compelling case of innocence

in decades and on June 23, 2010, I will join leaders from

NAACP, Amnesty International and other faith and community

organizations in Savannah, Georgia, lending our support to

Troy and his family and offering prayers for a favorable

outcome at the hearing. We continue to work tirelessly on

behalf of Troy and the MacPhail family to bring the real

killer of Officer Mark Allen MacPhail to justice and to bring

closure to both families.


Whatever the outcome of the hearing, we will be in the

trenches, knocking on doors and holding prayer vigils in the

churches of Georgia and across the country until justice

prevails for Troy Davis and for all Americans who have been

caught in the painful web of injustice.


The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of

Benjamin Todd Jealous.



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