Troy Davis execution nears: What options remain for a reprieve?

Troy Davis is facing his fourth execution date Wednesday at 7 p.m. Attempts to delay the execution continue, with critics saying Georgia has not listened to doubts about Davis's guilt.

Curtis Compton/Atlanta Journal & Constitution/AP
Gail Crouch plays a fiddle as protesters gather outside a clemency hearing for Troy Davis across from the Georgia State Capitol in Atlanta on Monday.

As vigils began and last-minute legal filings were processed, Troy Davis, the Georgia death row inmate whose contention of innocence has drawn global attention, prepared for his fourth, and likely final, execution date at 7 p.m. Wednesday.

Convicted in 1991 of killing off-duty Savannah, Ga., police officer Mark MacPhail, Mr. Davis failed Tuesday in his last clemency bid in front of the Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles. On Wednesday, the board denied an offer by Davis to take a polygraph test, leaving Davis with dwindling options for a reprieve.

The state's decision to go through with the execution, despite seven of nine witnesses recanting or changing their testimony, has put the credibility of US courts in question, Davis's supporters say. They fear that a US state is about to give a lethal injection to a man who may well be innocent.

"The government is playing a dangerous game here," says Bruce Barket, a Long Island criminal defense attorney who has followed the Davis case closely. "When there's this kind of widespread doubt about an individual's guilt, it's remarkably unwise for the government to pursue an execution."

Mr. Barket contrasts the global outpouring of support for Davis versus the lack of public outrage over the scheduled execution in Texas Wednesday of Lawrence Brewer, who was sent to death row after being convicted of chaining a black man, James Byrd, to the back of a pickup and dragging him to death near Jasper, Texas. Barket says the Texas case was an example of how the justice system should work.

On the other side of the debate, the original prosecutor in the Davis case, Spencer Lawton, says Davis's claims of innocence have been "manufactured" to raise sympathy and put public pressure on the courts. "A police officer was murdered," he told a Georgia TV station. "The consequences that derive from that fact can't be happy."

Indeed, doubts about Davis's guilt have been heard by myriad appeals courts and an unusual Supreme Court-ordered hearing in Georgia last year, all of which have come to the same conclusion: New developments notwithstanding, the verdict stands.

"He's never been able to prove his innocence," says Russell Covey, a law professor at Georgia State University, in Atlanta.

Driving much of the concern around the Davis execution, critics say, is that the imperative to get the verdict right seems to have fallen victim to expediency and false certainty.

"To prioritize the sentiment of, 'enough is enough, we've got to move forward now,' over the risk of executing somebody who did not commit the crime is just a very questionable way of going forward," says James Acker, a criminologist at State University of New York at Albany.

Prosecutors and family members have rejected such claims. "He has had ample time to prove his innocence," Joan MacPhail-Harris, the slain officer's widow, told reporters. "And he is not innocent."

Davis's lawyers filed a last-ditch lawsuit Wednesday that disputes a key piece of ballistics evidence in the case and challenges eyewitness testimony — similar arguments to those which the pardons board rejected Tuesday.

That lawsuit sets the stage for more appeals through the day, potentially up to the US Supreme Court. Meanwhile, a more plausible relief could come from the executive branch, either from Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal or President Obama.

The NAACP said Wednesday it planned to ask Obama to intervene.

Supporters have also begged prison officials at the Georgia Diagnostic and Classification Prison in Jackson to stage a walk out or strike in order to stop the execution.

If the execution goes forward as planned, it's likely to fuel simmering anger especially among liberals and African-American activists who see Davis's looming execution as evidence of racial injustice, given that Davis was black and his victim was white. Critics say police coerced black witnesses to make spurious statements to corroborate detectives' belief that Davis pulled the trigger.

"If you execute someone under these circumstances, you're going to leave people with outrage and anger directed at the government," says Barket, the Long Island attorney. "While we all have to respect the process, the process has to yield results that are seen as just and fair. " Otherwise, he adds, "it borders on tyranny."

Mr. Lawton, the prosecutor in the case, disagreed. "The good news," he said in a television interview, "is we live in a civilized society where questions like this are decided based on fact in open and transparent courts of law, and not on street corners."

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