The galvanizing Troy Davis case taught lessons beyond death penalty

Massive attention in America and internationally on the Troy Davis case appropriately focused on the death penalty, but this case was a call to action regardless of one’s position on capital punishment. The troubling uncertainty that followed Troy Davis to the death chamber on September 21, 2011, should prompt widespread recognition that the U.S. criminal justice system can do better, and Americans must require it.

When Davis’s guilt was called into question following the recantation of most key witnesses, thousands protested but were unable to stop the train that had left the station twenty years earlier. That’s when a jury, after weighing evidence presented, declared Davis guilty of the murder of police officer Mark MacPhail.

Even in light of discredited testimonies and a thunderous public outcry, Davis’s execution was not paused, and Americans learned three important truths: (1) We must do all we can to get verdicts right the first time; (2) the appeals process does not adequately address conviction uncertainty; and (3) certainty of guilt must be a prerequisite if we are to continue to implement the ultimate punishment.

Why is getting verdicts right the first time so important? In our criminal justice system, a retrial is extremely difficult to achieve. DNA-proven wrongful convictions have revealed that the appeals process is stunningly ineffective in correcting a mistaken verdict. Our system values finality. Numerous persons later exonerated by DNA had exhausted their appeals.

DNA technology has proven that we convict the innocent far more frequently than most imagined. It has also revealed red flags of wrongful conviction even in cases with no DNA evidence. To many observers, the Troy Davis case had red flags that were not effectively addressed.

Best practices in criminal justice procedures produce more accurate outcomes and, therefore, greater confidence in conclusions. Yet relatively few jurisdictions have implemented them. Why? Americans have not demanded it.

In this country, we, citizens and voters, get the criminal justice system that we demand. Conventional wisdom sets the tone and drives policy. We elect many of our prosecutors and judges, and we set their marching orders. But, tragically, common misconceptions about the system stunt our concern and misdirect our advocacy.

For example, most people believe that wrongful convictions can be attributed to innocent human error. But, if witness allegations of coercion are true, any error in Troy Davis’s verdict or sentence cannot be characterized as innocent. The Innocence Project reports that prosecutorial misconduct was a factor in 44 percent and police misconduct in half of the first 74 DNA exonerations.

Most people find eyewitness testimony to be compelling and trustworthy. In fact, thousands of experiments on memory and eyewitness testimony indicate that it is a weak form of evidence and often unreliable. Mistaken eyewitness identification contributed to more than 75 percent of DNA-proven wrongful convictions. In addition to the imperfections of human memory and the tendency of a memory to become contaminated by numerous influences, the motivations of witnesses in a case such as that of Troy Davis may have little to do with truth telling.

Even in the face of 289 Innocence Project wrongful convictions, most Americans believe the appeals process is an effective review for the correction of error in criminal justice. In truth our appeals courts are restricted in their review and rarely question the wisdom of a verdict. Worthy cases such as that of Troy Davis with unresolved issues require a less restrictive review that could be provided by Innocence Commissions or Conviction Integrity Units.

We can reduce wrongful convictions and uncertainties such as those experienced in the Troy Davis case by implementing many proven best practices in criminal justice procedures. These assure more confidence in the results from lineups, interrogations, forensic science, and more. Moreover, we need a review process beyond standard appeals for worthy cases with significant red flags of error or new evidence whether or not DNA evidence is available. However, these improvements will not occur with any urgency until our conventional wisdom reflects reality, not a bundle of truth-defeating myths. The Troy Davis case was yet another very unsettling wake-up call.

11 responses to “The galvanizing Troy Davis case taught lessons beyond death penalty

  1. Nancy,

    Bravo !! I’ve been doing innocence work for four years now, and one thing that has astounded me is that once a person is convicted by a jury, even it it’s wrong, once that verdict is in the books, it takes an army of people years of effort to fix it – if they even ever can.
    Yes, the appeals process is hugely biased toward “finality of judgement”, so “getting it right the first time” is not too much to ask. But to do that, we have to have honest, ethical prosecutors whose mission is to seek JUSTICE, not just convictions.


  2. Exactly, Phil. We have too many prosecutors who abdicate responsibility for a truthful outcome by claiming that the jury makes the final decision. Juries, unfortunately, can work with only the evidence presented and they are not typically educated on the reliability of the various forms of evidence. That is why, as you correctly remind us, it so often comes back to the ethics and motivations of the prosecutor. It’s not easy, but voters need to watch and vote accordingly.

  3. Pingback: Und zu Troy Davis… | inter | metapher

    • Thank you for sharing my commentary. I am sorry that I speak only English so do not know all that you said, but I am pleased that you have shared this.

      Best wishes,

      Nancy Petro

      • I have to say “Thank you” for your blog post. Hopefully not only US-Citizens, but people worldwide learned the “three important truths” you mentioned.

        Best wishes,


      • Nancy Petro

        Thank you, Joachim, for your response and your commitment to justice.

  4. Pingback: Cell Block Nation – The galvanizing Troy Davis case taught lessons beyond death penalty | Cell Block Nation

  5. American Patriot

    Our legal system must be held to SCIENTIFIC standards rather than the fragile human generated standards of proof we now require and trust in our courts. In science, we cannot “make data” to fit our desired conclusions by changing what we see and measure. In science, we draw what we see, not what we think we see. That is what makes science so vastly more accurate than any human generated endeavor such as law. This means that witnesses must not be grilled or pressured by police into saying what the police want them to see but rather asked for the truth. This also means that all evidence concerning the case must be made available to all sides involved in the case. This also means that internal politics NEVER has any place in determining “who did it” or “who is guilty.” If you want to insure objectivity in the criminal justice system, mandate that those in the DA’s office, police, or judges who knowingly railroad a case for political purposes must be made to serve the same sentence as the wrongly convicted defendant.

  6. Michael Henry

    I am so glad you prepared this article! Well done! An advocacy group here in Georgia (in fact with members world wide) this year attempted to secure an adjustment to this State’s death penalty code that would stipulate the need for physical evidence prior to the seeking of a death penalty trial. We unfortunately were unable to work through the political dynamics of the Assembly this year, but we are hopeful for next year this being a successful project. Articles like this one are both very motivating and validating to our cause! Thank you!!!

    • Michael,

      The concept of having evidence-related statutory requirements for a death penalty trial is worthy of consideration. Ideas like this may someday prevent the unacceptable uncertainty of the Troy Davis case. Thank you for your dedication to justice.

  7. The Troy A. Davis case was one for the books, Troy was a very sweet man. He will never ever be forgotten in my books. He was a good friend to me until the end and is still my friend. Thank you for sharing this with all of us.

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