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Troy Davis makes 'unprecedented' bid for clemency. Will it save his life?

More than 600,000 people, including leaders like Archbishop Desmond Tutu and former President Carter, have urged a Georgia clemency board to commute Troy Davis's death sentence.

By Staff writer / September 19, 2011

Protesters sing 'We Shall Overcome' outside the Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles while a clemency hearing for death row inmate Troy Davis goes on inside in Atlanta Monday. Davis was convicted of killing a Savannah police officer in 1989 and is due to be executed on Wednesday.

John Amis/Reuters



After 20 years of professing his innocence and with three scrapped execution dates behind him, Troy Davis launched a last-ditch effort on Monday to save his life ahead of a Wednesday execution date in Georgia.

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As thousands – including the pope – wait in vigils around the globe, a Georgia clemency board is hearing testimony in what promises to be a contentious hearing over whether there's enough new evidence to show that Mr. Davis did not shoot and kill off-duty Savannah, Ga., police officer Mark MacPhail in 1989.

When the clemency board met Monday, it was flanked by dozens of boxes of support signatures with labels that read, “I am Troy Davis.” Some 300 vigils and protests have been held in recent days around the country, including in Times Square. Some 663,000 signatures were collected on Davis' behalf.

Over the past decade, the case, legal experts say, has become an unprecedented cause célèbre for those who want to abolish the death penalty on the grounds it cannot guarantee that innocent people won't be executed.

The federal appeals system has turned the case over exhaustively without changing the verdict, most recently when a federal court judge dismissed Davis's claim of innocence in 2010.

At the same time, seven of nine witnesses have changed or recanted their original testimony, with some saying they were pressured by police to finger Davis. Meanwhile, new questions have cropped up about a key ballistics test, and one juror said in an Amnesty International documentary that, had she known then what she knows now, Davis would not be awaiting his execution.

With such a preponderance of new evidence, the Davis case is challenging evolving views on whether those who have been sentenced to death in US courts are guilty or innocent. At the forefront is the chasm that exists between the legal power of an initial conviction – when the burden of proof is on the prosecution and reasonable doubt is sufficient for acquittal – and the subsequent doubts raised from new evidence introduced during a convict's journey to the execution chamber.

“Davis has had to show by clear and convincing evidence that he's innocent,” says Russell Covey, a law professor at Georgia State University, in Atlanta, “which is very different from having to raise a reasonable doubt about his guilt.”

While courts in the appeals process focus on a convicted person having to prove their innocence, the Georgia parole board does have more latitude when considering "executive clemency." In allowing a 90-day stay of execution for Davis in 2007, the board wrote that it would “not allow an execution to proceed in this State unless and until its members are convinced that there is no doubt as to the guilt of the accused.”

Davis was convicted in 1991 for shooting Officer MacPhail after the officer responded to pleas for help from a homeless person near a Burger King where he worked off-duty as a security guard. MacPhail, who left behind an infant child, never had a chance to draw his gun as Davis, the jury found, shot him in the chest.

Davis's coterie of supporters have grown to include Pope Benedict XVI, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, and former President Jimmy Carter, and even some death penalty supporters like former Georgia Congressman Bob Barr.


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