Skip to main content

Death row inmate's rare chance to prove his innocence

By Benjamin Todd Jealous, Special to CNN
  • Troy Davis was convicted of killing an off-duty police officer and sentenced to death
  • Benjamin Todd Jealous: 7 of 9 eyewitnesses have recanted or changed their testimony
  • He says Supreme Court granted Davis a rare opportunity to challenge evidence in court
  • He says Davis must prove his innocence in hearing before a judge

Editor's note: Benjamin Todd Jealous is president and CEO of the NAACP.

(CNN) -- On Wednesday the saga of death row inmate Troy Anthony Davis will begin its last chapter. In an extremely rare ruling last summer, the United States Supreme Court ordered a federal judge in Georgia to grant Troy an evidentiary hearing to prove his innocence.

The ruling is unusual in that the Supreme Court has not granted this writ of habeas corpus in more than 50 years. Their decision is a strong indication that they are concerned about the constitutionality of executing the innocent -- as am I.

Although much work still must be done in our justice system to ensure the innocent do not pay the price of the guilty, the granting of this evidentiary hearing is a major step for Troy Davis and for many other likely innocent prisoners sitting on death row; Troy Davis will have an opportunity to tell his side of the story and new evidence will be considered in this nearly 20-year-old case.

The hearing will allow the testimony of witnesses who have recanted or contradicted their original eyewitness testimonies to be heard and examined in a court of law. At long last, the courts will hear critical testimony that they were prevented from hearing in the original trial.

Troy's journey to death row began in the summer of 1989, when he was arrested in connection with the killing of an off-duty police officer outside a Burger King restaurant in Savannah, Georgia. Two years later he was convicted and sentenced to death for a crime many believe he did not commit.

I had the privilege of meeting Mr. Davis almost a year ago, and I was convinced of his innocence. My sense of his innocence is impressionistic, but a close examination of the case indicates there was no physical evidence that tied him to the crime, no weapon was ever recovered and seven of the nine eyewitnesses have recanted or changed their original testimony in sworn affidavits, citing alleged police coercion.

One of the witnesses, a teenager, said the police threatened to hold him as an accessory to murder, warning that he would "go to jail for a long time" and would be lucky to ever get out because a police officer had been killed.

Since that trial, several members of the jury have delivered sworn statements to the court, indicating that their decision was based on incomplete and unreliable evidence. Given the murky timeline of the events in the dead of night, eyewitnesses who changed their stories, the pressure placed on the Savannah police department to promptly arrest and convict a "cop killer," and the alleged coercion of witnesses, it is easy to understand why some jurors have admitted their uncertainty.

For nearly twenty years, Mr. Davis's life has hung in the balance. Despite the prevalence of evidence and thousands of people rallying to save him from execution, including the NAACP, Amnesty International, former President Jimmy Carter, actor/activist Danny Glover, former FBI director William Sessions and conservative Congressman Bob Barr, the courts stubbornly refused to hear Davis's claims of innocence...until now.

It is the unjust reality of the death penalty that in our nation that there are more than 3,300 people withering on our nation's death rows, men and women who are almost universally poor, disproportionately African-American and in some cases innocent. Since 1973, according to the Death Penalty Information Center, 138 people have been released from death row with evidence of their innocence. Executing an innocent person is a mistake that cannot be rectified.

We still have a long way to go before Troy has a chance at life off death row. The standard of proof in the evidentiary hearing turns our criminal justice system on its head. Mr. Davis will be expected to prove his innocence rather than for the state to prove his guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. This is especially challenging given that the crime happened more than 20 years ago and there is no physical evidence, such as DNA.

The Troy Davis case is the most compelling case of innocence in decades and on June 23, 2010, I will join leaders from NAACP, Amnesty International and other faith and community organizations in Savannah, Georgia, lending our support to Troy and his family and offering prayers for a favorable outcome at the hearing. We continue to work tirelessly on behalf of Troy and the MacPhail family to bring the real killer of Officer Mark Allen MacPhail to justice and to bring closure to both families.

Whatever the outcome of the hearing, we will be in the trenches, knocking on doors and holding prayer vigils in the churches of Georgia and across the country until justice prevails for Troy Davis and for all Americans who have been caught in the painful web of injustice.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Benjamin Todd Jealous.