Capitol Thoughts Archive
When Injustice Is Served—
A few weeks ago I was traveling and left my book at home, so I decided to pick up another one. I browsed through the various authors and interesting titles. I settled on a John Grisham book. His movies were usually pretty good and I thought this book would be just what I was looking for. I barely had the chance to open it.
When I finally returned home, I also returned to the book that I had been reading prior to buying the Grisham work. While unpacking I took the Grisham book out of my suitcase. I thumbed through it once again, anxious to get started on what I believed was a work of fiction. As I thumbed through it, I noticed pages with photos. I turned to the spine of the book and right there at the top was the word, “Nonfiction”. “The Innocent Man” was not one of Grisham’s high-intensity fiction thrillers, it was a true story based on “murder and injustice in a small town.”
At the same time, the Troy Davis case resurfaced as a new execution date was set. I remembered Troy’s case from 2007 when he was initially set for execution, but was granted a stay, then again in 2008 when the US Supreme Court stepped in. I had long hoped that Troy would be given a new trial. Accused of killing a cop, he was given the death penalty. Of particular concern has always been that the entire case was based solely on witness testimony. No forensic evidence or the murder weapon were presented or found, however nine witnesses testified that Troy Davis was guilty. In 2003, seven of those eye-witnesses began recanting their statements, many with a similar theme – the police had intimidated them into identifying Davis as the shooter. With such doubts about the validity of the prosecution’s case, I always thought in the back of my mind that the judges who heard the appeals for a new trial would see what was so plainly evident to me; Troy Davis was due a new trial or at the very least, should not be sentenced to die when so much doubt surrounded his guilt.
On a recent trip to my parents’ home, I began watching a movie, “Conviction” based on a true story about a woman who becomes a lawyer to free her brother from jail after he was wrongly convicted of murder. The police in the case were sure he was the killer, he had a criminal background and for whatever reason, that made him their prime suspect. He proclaimed his innocence throughout the trial; however, the cries fell on deaf ears. His sister ultimately becomes a lawyer, locates the DNA from the case and with help from the Innocence Project frees her brother from jail. In this case, the witnesses lied on the stand and also claimed police intimidation as the motivating factor. Kenneth Waters was released from prison in 2001 after being exonerated on the DNA evidence and witnesses signed statements that they perjured themselves during the trial.
When I finally had the opportunity to crack open “The Innocent Man”, I was shocked at the story. In the Grisham book, Ron Williamson and Dennis Fritz are accused of murdering and raping a local woman, but proclaim their innocence throughout. Ron Williamson had an alibi for the night of the murder; however, police and prosecutors “liked” him for the crime and pursued him. They believed the crime was committed by two people and because Dennis Fritz was a friend of Williamson, he was accused of the rape and murder as well, despite having no evidence of him being at the crime scene. During the time of their trials, DNA testing was not available, but the prosecutor’s hair expert said that the hair found at the crime scene was consistent with the hair type of both defendants. But consistent doesn’t mean that there’s a match. It didn’t matter to the jury; they convicted both men of murder. Dennis Fritz was sentenced to life in prison, while Ron Williamson was sentenced to the death penalty. Both men pursued legal action and one judge finally decided to give Ron Williamson a new trial. DNA tests were performed and though the prosecutor was positive that the hair and other physical evidence would prove that Williamson and Fritz were the killers, it proved that they were not. After being on death row for over 12 years, both men were exonerated. I knew from the title that the book would be about someone who was wrongly convicted, but combined with the timing of the Troy Davis execution date and fight for clemency along with seeing the movie “Conviction”, it made me question more and more about our justice system.
Troy Davis will be buried on Saturday, but we cannot allow the injustice of what happened to him be buried too. There is no DNA to be tested that will prove Troy Davis’ innocence even now. But what we do know is that justice was not served. With the majority of the witnesses that built the case for the prosecution recanting their story, how can anyone be sure of his guilt – now or ever? I read a quote from Mark McPhail, Jr. that said, “the truth came out in the trial.” But did it? If seven out of the nine witnesses are saying that they lied on the stand, can we be sure that the truth came out in the trial? I don’t feel secure in saying whether Troy was guilty or innocent and that is the reason he should have been granted clemency.
It’s not just the convicted person who loses when there are questions about the case, but they are sentenced to death anyway. When injustice is served, we all lose. There is no faith in an unjust system – a system where people are coerced into saying things because the cops or the prosecution want to close a case or win a trial, a system that is swayed by an emotional family who wants to see someone pay for the life of their loved one. There is no faith in a system that allows a man to die when there are questions about his guilt. We all lose in a system where
millions of voices pleading for clemency are quieted by fewer voices who are screaming for death. And although Troy is gone, he leaves behind a powerful story of injustice in this country; a country that pledges “liberty and justice for all.” The next step for each of us is to use the stories of men like Troy Davis, Ron Williamson, Dennis Fritz, Kenneth Waters, and the many more like them who maintained their innocence, yet through questionable witness testimony and questionable evidence were sentenced to die. By using stories like these, perhaps we can shine a light on the shortcomings of capital punishment. Of the men listed above, one was denied the opportunity to overcome the reasonable doubt and was actually murdered by the government. His story represents what can happen when injustice is served.
RIP Troy Davis
October 9, 1968 – September 21, 2011