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.

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

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.

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.

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."

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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