Troy Davis Executed

Last night the State of Georgia executed Troy Davis. Mr. Davis was convicted of killing a police officer. Subsequently, most of the witnesses either recanted their testimony or made statements which seriously called into question their prior testimony. They painted a picture of a police department out to close the case at all cost. The motivation that drives the police departments to catch a cop killer is also the motivation that causes a case to go awry. The Davis case paused many, but apparently not enough. Despite a number of cases which prove the fallacy of the legal theory, the law still treats recanting testimony is unreliable. You can find eloquent prose speaking about how this is the most unreliable testimony that exists. The problem is that despite the eloquence, a review of a number of the cases involving exonerations have shown that there was recanting testimony.

The law is prepared to believe these witnesses when they convict the Defendant, but once the same witness recants they suddenly lose all credibility. Individuals who recant have a lot to lose. They face perjury charges, pressure from law enforcement, and having their name dragged through the dirt. No one who has ever been in the witness box regards hours of vigorous cross-examination as a painless experience. Many people who prefer to spend that time under the dentist’s drill.

The Davis case could have also been used as a vehicle for the United States Supreme Court to finally answer the question about whether convicting an actually innocent defendant is a self-standing constitution question. The US Supreme Court’s 2009 original habeas corpus proceedings in I
n re Davis almost reached that question. Right now, actual innocence is a wild card in federal court that can substitute in for demonstrating good cause for failing to raise an otherwise valid constitutional issue, but it can never be a self-standing “winning hand.” You need actual innocence plus an error. In theory if an actually innocent defendant is convicted at a textbook perfect trial, there is no error.

I don’t have a clue whether Mr. Davis was innocent or guilty, but I think his case should serve as a vehicle for scholars to reexamine the recanting witness doctrine and for Courts to finally recognize that convicting an actually innocent defendant is a constitutional violation.