The world waited with bated breath as the Supreme Court of the United States decided the fate of Troy Davis, a 42-year-old Black man sitting on Georgia’s death row. With so much doubt surrounding Davis’ guilt, his supporters hoped he’d be granted a new trial and the opportunity to prove his innocence. Unfortunately, the Court decided not to intervene and the miracle of justice we all hoped for never came—Davis was executed.
Davis was convicted of the 1989 murder of Mark MacPhail, an off-duty Savannah, Georgia police officer. According to reports, nine eyewitnesses identified Davis as the shooter. Up until he took his last breath, Davis maintained his innocence. Over the last 22 years, his legal team fought tirelessly to win a new trial, presenting affidavits from seven of those nine witnesses who recanted or dramatically changed their original testimony.
I don’t want to contradict the various judges who heard the case, but it’s unthinkable that, after the majority of the original witnesses recanted, Davis was not granted a new trial so that he could prove his innocence. I’m not the only authority who feels this way. Bob Barr, a former federal prosecutor and former Republican Congressman from Georgia publicly stated he believed there was too much doubt surrounding Davis’ guilt. Barr, a supporter of the death penalty, felt that Davis’ guilt had not been proven beyond a reasonable doubt. Former FBI chief William Sessions also weighed in on the Davis case saying, Davis deserved clemency because the case built against him was not strong enough.
The pleas from these law enforcement and government experts—as well as the pleas from millions around the world—fell on deaf ears. The prosecutors and parole board refused to admit they were wrong. And now Troy Davis is dead.
America must revamp its legal system—beginning with the way we investigate and arrest suspects and continuing to the way we prosecute them and the way we handle appeals. We must not allow prosecutors to convict an individual based solely on eyewitness testimony. When new evidence is introduced or witnesses recant, a new trial should automatically be granted.
Lastly, we need a nationwide ban on the death penalty. One innocent man put to death is one too many. If we can’t be certain of the legitimacy of the convictions, the practice must be halted. We need to follow the lead of states like Illinois where, in July 2011, the death penalty was abolished and the state’s death row cleared, after widely reported—and proven—claims that police tortured nearly a dozen of the inmates waiting to be executed and forced them to confess to the crimes.
We may never learn the truth about Davis’ innocence or guilt, but we do have an opportunity to correct the legal system so that we no longer have to worry about whether or not our legal system has condemned an innocent man to death.
(Judge Greg Mathis is a national figure known for his advocacy campaigns for equal justice. His inspirational life story of a street youth who rose from jail to Judge has provided hope to millions who watch him on the award-winning television court show Judge Mathis each day.)