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Troy Davis execution protest confronts support for death penalty

While the Troy Davis execution may not be a game-changer for the death penalty, it has become part of a growing conversation about ensuring that innocent people aren't killed or die in prison.

By Staff writer / September 24, 2011

Supporters of Troy Davis gather across the road from Georgia's death row prison in Jackson, Georgia, Wednesday, September 21, 2011.

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The execution Wednesday of Troy Davis, a Georgia death row inmate who convinced thousands across the world of his innocence, capped a sobering week of death penalty debate likely to play into shifting attitudes in the US over the ultimate sanction.

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The execution, also on Wednesday, in Texas of Lawrence Brewer, convicted of dragging a black man to death in 1998, led to the elimination of the execution day "last meal" in Texas after Mr. Brewer ordered an elegant feast that he declined to eat.

Also this week, the US Supreme Court stayed the executions of two other Texas men in order to further review their innocence claims, while Alabama went forward with the 36th execution of the year in the US on Thursday, leading to the death of Derrick Mason for a 1994 murder.

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And lingering anger over the execution of Mr. Davis led filmmaker Michael Moore to urge a boycott of Georgia, which he called "a murderous state."

Taken together, these events aren't likely by themselves to spark reforms of the US death penalty system, which relies largely on states to mete out justice. Even as Davis supporters vow to keep up the fight to abolish the sanction, the loose coalition of human rights groups struggled to come up with a plan for where to focus their appeals next.

"His case could set in motion a chain reaction that galvanizes the innocence movement and put even more pressure on the justice system to get serious about reform," writes Dax Devlon-Ross, the author of a novel, "Make Me Believe," about the execution of an innocent man. "Or it could just be another moment."

But while the Davis execution may not be a game-changer for the death penalty, it did become part of a growing conversation — more across kitchen tables than legislative chambers — about the courts' ability to ensure that innocent people aren't killed or die in prison.

Troy Davis, whose case sparked a rare Supreme Court ruling for a new evidentiary hearing, built a phalanx of support on the fact that seven of nine eyewitnesses recanted or changed their testimony, which helped turn public opinion, including those of world leaders like Pope Benedict and President Jimmy Carter, in his favor. The European Union issued a statement against the execution of Davis, saying "serious and compelling doubts have persistently surrounded the evidence on which Mr. Davis was convicted."

But it's likely that not just the prosecutor and the victim's family were the only ones convinced of Davis' guilt in killing off-duty Savannah police officer Mark MacPhail outside a Burger King in 1989. Court after appeals court upheld the conviction. Last week, the Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles failed for a fourth time to be convinced by arguments of faulty ballistics testing and the alleged confession of another man to the crime.

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