A more believable story

Posted on September 30, 2011. Filed under: Arkansas Democrat-Gazette Columns | Tags: , , , |

The din against the death penalty reached an apex in media circles last week after the execution of Troy Davis in Georgia.

Ironically, the very same night Davis paid for his crimes, another inmate, in Texas, was executed with much less fanfare.

Lawrence Brewer was lethally injected for his part in the gruesome dragging death of James Byrd. No celebrities clamored for Brewer’s life, no vigils sought clemency, no online petitions pleaded for mercy—and no wonder. Brewer essentially spit in the eye of the law, refusing to admit to any regrets and calling his impending capital punishment “a little old sleeping medicine.”

Evidently, even the most stalwart death-penalty opponents were a little reluctant to speak up too loudly on behalf of a lowlife like Brewer.

Not that Davis was a model of citizenship, either.

In the days and months leading up to his execution, pictures of Davis showed a tidy, bespectacled figure, as if to subliminally suggest that a family man from suburbia had been plucked from his easy chair and tossed into prison.

But at the time of his crime in 1989, Davis’ life had already earned him a conviction of carrying an illegally concealed handgun and a street nickname of RAH, for “Rough as Hell.”

On the night of police officer Mark MacPhail’s murder, Davis had already been involved in another shooting (for which he was also convicted) and the pistol-whipping and beating of the homeless man to whose aid Officer MacPhail was coming.

Even on his deathbed, all Davis could muster was innocence by technicality.

“I’m not the one who personally killed your son, your father, your brother,” he reportedly told the MacPhail family in attendance.

His parsed phrasing sounds like a guilty defendant who’s spent too much time with lawyers—not the soulful lamentation of a wrongfully convicted man with nothing left to hide.

It all would have been much more believable if Davis had come clean about a few things. After all, as an eyewitness himself, he had a lot of information that might have helped his case. Or did he?

The good thing about a case with this much publicity is that it gets examined very closely. The bad thing about such scrutiny is that inconvenient and incriminating facts tend to rise to the surface.

I like the way the prosecuting attorney in Davis’ case, Spencer Lawton, put it recently when he said fuzzy thinking in the case is the result of a public-relations campaign, as opposed to disciplined thinking in court.

“We’ve won every time the thinking has been disciplined,” he said of the numerous judicial reviews in Davis’ case, stretching all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.

There are two things to remember in cases like Davis’. The first is, guys like Davis don’t have celebrity friends. Those associations come from fund raising outfits such as Amnesty International, which means their support is about the cause, not Davis. They don’t need to know anything factually about his case, because they already know they oppose the death penalty.

The second thing is, where there’s hype, there’s hyperbole. The publicity campaign for Davis’ clemency needed only to manufacture the appearance of doubt, which can be accomplished using rumor, innuendo and exaggerated half-truths.

That’s why you hear repeated soundbites about “seven of nine witnesses” recanting testimony, when there were actually a total of 34 witnesses called against Davis. Nevertheless, the U.S. Supreme Court ordered an evidentiary hearing in district court to investigate the recantations.

Of those, U.S. District Judge William Moore noted that only one directly refuted trial testimony, and that was from a jailhouse snitch previously exposed as a perjurer at trial.

Davis never explained why, at that moment-of-truth hearing, he chose to not allow two of the recanting witnesses to testify in court.

Complaints about lack of DNA evidence conveniently fail to mention the fact that a pair of Davis’ shorts was recovered at his mother’s house, but the defense fought to have any evidence from them suppressed at trial, and won.

Davis offered to take a polygraph just before his execution. An innocent man might have allowed DNA testing on his shorts 20 years ago.

Here’s one damning point that Davis never addressed in public, yet could never escape in court.

Because of the darkness and distances that night, many eyewitnesses could only describe the participants by clothing.

There was remarkable consistency in testimony about MacPhail’s actions just prior to the shooting. One after another, witnesses described MacPhail chasing two fleeing men, one in a yellow shirt and one in a white shirt with dark shorts.

Their common view was that the yellow-shirted man stopped, and MacPhail ran past him after the white-shirted man, who then turned and fired at the officer.

Only one eyewitness remembered it differently. He was the man later identified as wearing a white shirt that night. His name was Troy Davis.

Our capital-punishment system needs reform. But critics of the death penalty need to find a better argument against it than this one.

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