NEW VOICES: Former FBI Chief Urges Georgia to Commute Troy Davis's Death Sentence

William S. Sessions, the former director of the FBI and a former federal judge and prosecutor, recently wrote an op-ed calling for the commutation of Troy Davis's death sentence to life in prison without parole.  Writing in the Atlanta Journal Constitution, Sessions said that "serious questions about Davis’ guilt, highlighted by witness recantations, allegations of police coercion and a lack of relevant physical evidence, continue to plague his conviction."  He called upong the Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles to exercise "a measure of compassion and humanity."  He concluded that there is too much doubt to allow an execution: "Without DNA or other forms of physical or scientific evidence that can be objectively measured and tested, it is possible that doubts about guilt in this case will never be resolved. However, when it comes to the sentence of death, there should be no room for doubt."  Davis's execution is scheduled for September 21, and his clemency hearing will be on September 19.  Read full op-ed below.

September 15, 2011

Should Davis be executed?
No: Questions about his guilt continue to plague his conviction.

By William S. Sessions

As Troy Davis faces his fourth execution date on Sept. 21, many may assume that lingering doubts about the case have been resolved. This is far from true, and the Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles — which has several new members since the Davis case last crossed its desks — has the daunting task of reviewing one of the most controversial cases the state has ever seen.

What quickly will become apparent is that serious questions about Davis’ guilt, highlighted by witness recantations, allegations of police coercion and a lack of relevant physical evidence, continue to plague his conviction. Last summer, an extraordinary hearing ordered by the U.S. Supreme Court to answer these questions instead left us with more doubt.

At Davis’ evidentiary hearing, witnesses called by Davis recanted trial testimony and made allegations of police pressure. Others testified that an alternative suspect had confessed to them that he committed the crime. One eyewitness testified, for the first time, that he saw this other suspect, a relative of his, commit the crime. Police witnesses for the state of Georgia alternatively asserted that the original trial testimony was the true version of events and that it was elicited without coercion.

Some of these same witnesses also had testified at Davis’ trial but have since recanted their trial testimony. The judge at the evidentiary hearing found their recantations to be unreliable and, therefore, found Davis was unable to “clearly establish” his innocence. The problem is that the testimony of these same witnesses, whom the judge had determined were less believable, had been essential to the original conviction and death sentence.

What the hearing demonstrated most conclusively was that the evidence in this case — consisting almost entirely of conflicting stories, testimonies and statements — is inadequate to the task of convincingly establishing either Davis’ guilt or his innocence. Without DNA or other forms of physical or scientific evidence that can be objectively measured and tested, it is possible that doubts about guilt in this case will never be resolved.

However, when it comes to the sentence of death, there should be no room for doubt. I believe there is no more serious crime than the murder of a law enforcement officer who was putting his or her life on the line to protect innocent bystanders. However, justice is not done for Officer Mark Allen MacPhail Sr. if the wrong man is punished.

In 2007, the Georgia State Board of Pardons and Paroles issued a stay of execution for Davis and took the admirable position that it would “not allow an execution to proceed in this State unless and until its members are convinced that there is no doubt as to the guilt of the accused.”

Because this case continues to be permeated by doubt, the Board of Pardons and Paroles’ stance continues to be the right one. In reality, there will always be cases, including capital cases, in which doubts about guilt cannot be erased to an acceptable level of certainty. The Davis case is one of these, and it is for cases like this that executive clemency exists.

Those responsible for clemency play a vital role in ensuring our legal system includes a measure of compassion and humanity. The death penalty should not be carried out, and Davis’ sentence should be commuted to life.

William S. Sessions is the former director of the FBI, a former federal judge and federal prosecutor.

(W. Sessions, "Should Davis be executed?," Atlanta Journal-Constitution, September 15, 2011).  See New Voices and Innocence.  See also, more information on Troy Davis.