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.