It seems obvious that the existence of substantial “reasonable doubt” as to a man previously found guilty of the crime of murder should be a potent reason for issuing an order to stay his execution.
Yet this obvious observation was ignored in the case of Troy Davis by the Georgia Pardon and Parole Board, the Georgia Supreme Court and most recently the United States Supreme Court.
There appears there was plenty of reasonable doubt as to Davis’ guilt that emerged since he was found guilty of murder over 20 years ago in the shooting of an off-duty police officer. The officer at the time was attempting to help a man who was being assaulted by a group of men.
Troy Davis was clearly present at that time but it was clearly being challenged by post-verdict developments as to whether he fired the shot that killed the officer. Those developments raised serious questions about whether the police improperly pressured witnesses to give testimony against Davis and in using faulty procedures in suggesting that witnesses identify him as the shooter. Recent reliable studies have clearly demonstrated the inaccuracies of eyewitness testimony when this type of police misconduct occurs.
The death penalty would seem to be inconsistent with a political philosophy of limiting the power of government. After all, a legislature can define those crimes that will subject a convicted person to the death penalty. The exercise of that governmental power in permitting the death of even a clearly guilty person reflects an awesome use of the power of the state over its citizens.
Michigan has wisely limited its power over convicted felons to a maximum punishment less than a sentence of death. But the execution of Davis represents the state of Georgia taking a life of a man where there now exists substantial reasonable doubt as to his guilt. His execution constituted an unconscionable act of the state of Georgia. His death should serve as strong evidence that the death penalty should be reconsidered in light of the many death row inmates who would have been wrongly executed but for being been exonerated of guilt through the use of DNA evidence as discovered by The Innocence Project.
The United States Supreme Court in a 1970 case (In Re Winship) recognized the constitutional requirement of a state having to prove a person guilty of a crime “beyond a reasonable doubt.” The court stated the important reason for this requirement even though that standard of proof was not expressly stated in the Constitution: “The reasonable-doubt standard plays a vital role in the American scheme of criminal procedure. It is a prime instrument for reducing the risk of convictions resting on factual error.”
The Supreme Court recognized in that decision that innocent people can be sometimes convicted of a crime, so that the state must be put to a high degree of proof to make it easier to acquit a guilty person than to convict an innocent person. That value of protecting the life and liberty of a potentially innocent person becomes more compelling and consistent with the Winship case when it came to deciding whether Troy Davis should be put to death.
Unfortunately the United States Supreme Court ignored the importance of its prior precedent in allowing Mr. Davis to be executed.