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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.

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Davis was convicted in 1991 after witnesses — including strangers — testified they saw him shoot MacPhail as the officer came to the rescue of a homeless man that two men, including Davis, were pistol-whipping after he refused to give them a beer. Davis was also convicted of shooting another man earlier in the evening, with a gun that ballistics testing tied to the MacPhail murder scene. No conclusive physical evidence tied Davis to the crime, and he maintained his innocence until the end, telling MacPhail's family before the execution that he did not "personally kill" the officer, adding, "I did not have a gun."

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While the bar for convincing courts of post-conviction innocence is high, Federal District Court Judge William T. Moore last year found the changed testimony unreliable and unconvincing. Defense attorneys, moreover, were loathe to put two eyewitnesses who substantively recanted their testimony on the stand at that hearing because of concerns about cross-examination.

Critics say the global outpouring of support for Troy Davis was disingenious, an example of death penalty opponents picking sympathetic cases to tout while ignoring other claims of innocence, such as those expressed by Mr. Brewer, who was also executed Wednesday, in Texas, for the killing of James Byrd in a race-motivated dragging.

While protesters helped shape the coverage of the execution, they ultimately came up against the determination of the court system as a brief delay in the execution as the US Supreme Court considered an appeal gave way to a lethal injection after the court, after several hours' consideration, dismissed the plea.

"There was this invisible support for the execution that didn't need to be shaped or guided, and I think Troy Davis supporters were blindsided by that invisible support," Michael Leo Owens, a political science professor at Emory University, in Atlanta, told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. "It is the dominant perspective."

To be sure, support for the death penalty remains at about 60 percent in the US, though that number dwindles to a minority, according to many polls, when respondents are asked to pick between the death penalty and life in prison without parole.

In Florida, the fourth most active death penalty state, jury-ordered death sentences have declined from a high of 40 a year in the late 1980s to 14 in 2010. Meanwhile, North Carolina currently has a death penalty moratorium and Illinois, on July 1, closed its death row. California voters will have a referendum on abolishing the death penalty next year.

"Death penalty attitudes don't change suddenly," says Michael Radelet, a sociology professor at the University of Colorado at Boulder, who studies the death penalty. "What's more important is monitoring how arguments or discussions about the death penalty change, and what Troy Davis has done is make people, whether pro or con, acknowledge that people are executed despite doubts about guilt."

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