Will Obama save Troy Davis from death row?

After 17 years on death row, Troy Davis was to be executed Monday in Georgia. On Friday, an appeals court granted him a stay on his execution. The issue is set to resurface toward the end of November - after the US presidential election.


Jason Ewart was in a good mood Friday morning. The lawyer for Troy Davis had just received the decision by Georgia’s 11th Circuit Court of Appeals by email. His client would not be executed by lethal injection in a high security prison in Georgia next week.


Davis was condemned to death in 1991 for the murder of a white police officer in Savannah, Georgia. Since then, seven out of nine witnesses have recanted or changed their testimony, which was the backbone of the prosecution's case. But Davis has stayed on death row.


On Friday, the court gave Davis’ lawyers 15 days to file documents supporting defense claims that Davis is being wrongfully held in prison. The court will then have 10 days to decide if the case should go back before a lower court, which could order a new trial.


“This decision is a relief, obviously,” Ewart told FRANCE 24 from Washington DC. “Now, we have about 20 days to prepare his defense.”


For anti-death penalty campaigners, there is enormous hope. In less than two weeks, America goes to the polls to elect a new president – and that could have implications for the Davis case.


Wrong place, wrong time


For Davis, life changed one fateful August night in 1991 in the car park of a Savannah fast-food chain. That night, a 27-year-old white policeman was shot dead in an altercation.


A few hours later, a man denounced Davis, claiming to have seen the black man kill the police officer in cold blood. By the next day, Davis’ photograph appeared in local papers under the headline, “Cop-killer, wanted dead or alive.”


The suspect voluntarily turned himself in to the police, after which he was made the indisputable suspect in the case. The investigators, according to Davis’ lawyer, never pursued any other track in the investigation.


Without material proof - the murder weapon was never recovered, nor were there any fingerprints or DNA traces - Davis was finally condemned to death in 1991 on the basis of the testimonies of nine witnesses. Davis never denied being present at the spot, but he always maintained he was not the killer.


But protesting his innocence is not enough, it’s still necessary to have a good lawyer. That’s something Davis would not have: the state of Georgia is one of the rare US states not to officially provide court appointed lawyers for those condemned to death. In fact, the search for evidence that could question the prosecution’s case did not start until 2000.


Davis’ lawyers and supporters though would find plenty of evidence of his innocence. According to Amnesty International, seven of the nine witnesses who retracted their testimonies later admitted to acting under police pressure. An illiterate man could have signed a deposition written by the police, a teenager could have accused Davis under the threat of complicity to murder charges. Above all, several new witnesses have named Sylvester Coles – who testified against Davis – as the gunner.

A global campaign to support Davis


Human rights advocates, politicians, artists and ordinary citizens have been galvanized by the Davis case and have pushed for a retrial in the light of these new elements. Nobel Peace Prize-winner Desmond Tutu, Pope Benedict XVI, the European Council, former US President Jimmy Carter as well as Hollywood actress Susan Sarandon have appealed for clemency.


In the US and in Europe, Amnesty International spearheaded the battle to recognize Davis’ innocence. Oct. 23, 2008 was commemorated as a “Justice for Troy Davis” day. Thousands gathered in Atlanta, Los Angeles, Brussels and Paris, calling for the commutation of the death sentence and for opening a new trial.


Anti-death penalty activists also pushed for appeals on various judicial fronts. The execution was scheduled for 2007, but two deferments were granted - in July 2007 and in Sept. 2008. However, no court found it necessary to re-try Davis despite the new evidence.


Lawyers and anti-death penalty activists denounced the US justice system, especially prosecutor Spencer Lawton, who staunchly maintained that Davis was guilty of the crime.


Yes, we can?

“I was ready to visit my brother in prison when I heard the news,” said Martina Correia, Davis’ sister, during a phone interview with FRANCE 24 Friday morning. Correia has denounced her brother’s detention conditions in poignant videos and she affirmed, “Troy deserves a retrial…and we will force prosecutor Lawton to face up to his lies.”


Correia is particularly heartened by this new deferment. And for a reason: Davis' lawyers have 15 days to file documents after which, the court will have 10 days to decide if the case should go back before a lower court. That’s about 25 days, or more specifically, after the Nov. 4 US presidential election.


Few believe that with Barack Obama in the White House, anything could change. The Democratic presidential candidate has been very discrete about a subject which could cost him several votes. Obama has however come out in favour of capital punishment during his campaign, “I said on several occasions that I think that capital punishment should be authorized in a very limited number of circumstances, for the most extreme crimes,” he has said.

But it does not seem to discourage Correia. “I sincerely support Obama, I expect from him a great change for my country, and also for my brother.”

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