Sunday, May 15, 2011

Dori Smith, interviews Savannah GA District Attorney Spencer Lawton, about Troy Anthony Davis

Talk Nation Radio
(not a final transcript, edits in progress)
Republished from Archives, October 23, 2008, interview with Savannah GA District Attorney Spencer Lawton, about Troy Anthony Davis who is on death row in Georgia. Amnesty International is asking people to sign a petition here and contact to ask them to commute his sentence to life rather than death. His execution could be carried out at any time. Laura Moye, at Amnesty International, has also asked, "If you know clergy or legal professionals, ask them to please sign the sign-on letters for Troy. And when a date is set, join us for an international day of solidarity, where we will have demos around the world in advance of Davis’ clemency hearing to show the parole board that the world is watching and demands a stop to the execution!" here

This transcript begins at 15:00 minutes into the above program after Attorney Dierdre'Connor who has long been interested in the case as part of her work with the group, Innocence Matters, explains that the sudden and unexpected shooting crime occurred in a dimly lit parking lot late at night and was witnessed by people in the line of fire. After the crime the police quickly settled on Troy Davis, and they did so based on the untested testimony of Sylvester "Red" Coles. She further notes that a key witness whose testimony was to result in the arrest and prosecution of Troy Davis, had said he had been threatened by police officials that he would be put in prison if he did not say what he did. He would later try to "back up at trial" according to court authorities involved in the prosecution. Also available here in audio formats of higher quality including VBR MP3 128 k.

In light of the new video from award winning filmmaker Jen Marlowe, The Back Story on Troy Davis, we are republishing the transcript of my interview with the D.A. who prosecuted Troy Davis for its relevance. Davis may be executed at any time by the State of Georgia after the courts failed to reverse a legal decision on his innocence. The case has bounced to various courts and was sent back to Georgia by the U.S. Supreme Court for evidence hearing.

Members of the original jury in the Davis case have said that if they had known facts that have come to light since the case was tried, they would not have voted to convict the Georgia native of murder. Spencer Lawton assured AP, and readers of the Atlanta Journal Constitution, that Sylvester Red Coles was not the murderer of officer Mark McPhail.

Transcribed portion of Dori Smith interview with former Savannah County D.A., Spencer Lawton:

Smith: You mention this other man Sylvester Coles.

Lawton: "mmhhmm".

Smith: Did you investigate Sylvester Coles at the time, 1989?

Lawton: Yes, well um, well I don't know what you're gonna be willing to call an investigation. But what happened is, he came, I think it was the day after the event. He produced himself to the police. I think maybe I had said this in the material you're looking at.

Smith: Well you made the point that he had an attorney but his attorney allowed him to appear before the police without his being present. Why was that important?

Lawton: Well because it indicates, it indicates some confidence on the part of the lawyer that Coles was not involved. Any lawyer who had even the tiniest notion that his client could be tied to the case whether justifiably or not would never allow him to testify without counsel present. So, or make a statement to police without counsel present. So what that really basically indicates is that the man's own lawyer was sufficiently confident that he could not be tied to it that he present, that he told them go down down there go to the police station and tell them anything, tell them whatever it is that you know that you've got to say. So he did.

Smith: So that in fact is why you didn't investigate Coles? I mean isn't that kind of an assumption on your part, or did you ask the lawyer?

Lawton: Oh gee, everything's an assumption at some point.

Smith: Well I just wondered, who was the lawyer by the way?

Lawton: John Calhoon.

Smith: Thank you, and I just really, I think a lot of people have done a lot of different kinds of studies on this case because case because it could be kind of a test case for the question of innocence and new evidence in the matter of whether or not someone is put to death. It seems...

Lawton: Except that the Supreme Court doesn't think so.

Smith: Well the Supreme Court looked at a pretty narrow question right?

Lawton: No I, they reviewed as far as I'm aware they reviewed the entire record of the case. There would be no reason for em not to. I would assume that they reviewed the entire record including all of those different spots along the way that I just got through enumerating to you.

Smith: So the question before them was whether or not the lower court was right in not presenting on evidentiary..

Lawton: Well before them also was a question which the defen, which the defendants asked was whether the 8th amendment prohibits execution of the innocent. I've got no idea. It wasn't necessarily just confined to an examination of one lower court's opinion. There were um (phew) um a half a dozen lower court opinions. There were opinions rendered by the U.S. District Court, by the US Circuit Court of Appeals, by the State Supreme Court. And I'm sure that they reviewed all of those lower opinions. They don't say in their ruling, they just say that they declined to hear the appeal.

Smith: You said something about the fact that you found it important, significant, that some 80% of those witnesses recanted and you thought that was evidence that they weren't telling the truth. Can you just explain why?

Lawton: Well because its such an uncanny coincidence as to invite the suspicion that it wasn't merely coincidence, at least in my mind, and I know in the minds of, of many others.

Smith: If you've said that they are not credible can you just say why not, is it the case that mistakes are so seldom?

Lawton: I'm not saying, what am I saying is not credible?

Smith: Well you said it was suspicious, suspect.

Lawton: Well yeah sure sure.

Smith: You know a couple of things I remember. One was a man named Larry Young, he was hit in the head and he told CBS News he never saw Troy Davis and so he obviously is one of those who recants his testimony right?

Lawton: Mmhhhm, mmhmm.

Smith: Do you remember him? He was hit in the head?

Lawton: Let me ask you a question if I may.

Smith: Sure.

Lawton: What, give me the best reason that you can think. I just got through saying that these witnesses when they testified at trial they did so contemporaneously with the prosecution, while their memories were relatively fresh, they did it under oath, they did it in open court, they did it subject to cross examination by the defense attorneys who were trying to get em to say what they now say. Now, give,if you, if we can think of one reason why what they say in their affidavits should be given any more credibility than what they said at trial I would like to know what that reason is. Could you give me that reason?

Smith: Sure, what about the threat of incarceration for ten to twelve years?

Lawton: I don't understand you.

Smith: Some of these witnesses have said that they were threatened with being incarcerated for between ten to twelve years.

Lawton: Why, I'm asking you why should we believe that, why should we believe anything they say now more than what they said when they were at trial?

Smith: I think that one of the folks that I've interviewed about this case thus far have wondered why all of this isn't being heard by a judge.

Lawton: But that's not an answer to my question.

Smith: No I mean the real question that I had for you is why are you going to the lengths you are to document that its not credible but yet its my understanding from the defense that thus far the courts have not heard these witnesses that have recanted, and that has not been presented as a case. Its been presented as a question, 'can we present it'? But the evidentiary hearings...

Lawton: ...and the answer to that question was no. they cannot present their live witnesses in court for a, for a number of reasons.. what, the principle reason being that none of the affidavits meet the conditions of the rule that would allow them to. We've got to have rules, you can't.

Smith: And are you willing to let a man be executed for that?

Lawton: I'm sorry?

Smith: You say you're against the death penalty. Just explain to me, I mean you wouldn't want though to have an innocent man executed on a procedure?

Lawton: Ma'am I'm not gonna continue this a whole lot longer. I can see the case you are trying to build and I've done the very best that I can to..

Smith: Well I'm not an attorney so I'm not trying to build a case..I'm just..

Lawton: You don't have to be an attorney to try to build a case. An awful lot of people that are not attorneys have been signing on to to try to..

Smith: I mean you must be under a lot of pressure and especially because you had that story written in Georgia in the same area? It was a book and a film right about the Williams case?

Lawton: Oh gee, (Laughs) yeah, yeah go ahead, what do you conclude from all of that?

Smith: Well, it was, "In the Garden of Good and Evil"? Is that right? (In the book, the prosecutor, withholds exculpatory evidence and James Williams is convicted of murder. The Georgia Supreme Court reversed the conviction after confirming that Lawton withheld evidence that could have cleared him.)

Lawton: I understand that yeah yeah yeah what do you conclude from that?

Smith: Well two things, I mean really my story has been a look at the death penalty itself because some people even though they are not opposed are favoring a moratorium because of mistakes made and 130 cases now?

Lawton: That may be I'm only concerned with the Davis Case,

Smith: OK.

Lawton: I'm just, that's my only concern.

Smith: I guess I just wonder why not allow these witnesses who insist..

Lawton: It's not me that's not allowing em ma'am it's the courts that aren't allowing em, and the reason they are not being allowed is because there are rules that say when something is allowed and when it's not and they don't meet the rule. I just can't explain any better than you. If if uh, suppose that we were listening to, um, suppose there were a court that was trying to decide somebody's guilt or innocence and a mob gathered outside the court house chanting and demanding vengeance. I'm prepared to bet you wouldn't be happy with that. And to think the court would listen to that would be, would be a bad thought. Now let's suppose that a mob gathers outside the court house while the court is trying to decide guilt or innocence, based on the rule of law mind you, and the crowd chants and demands innocence. In both cases what is sought to be done is that the judicial process should yield to the chants of the mob? Am I right?

Smith: Are you calling Amnesty International the mob, I just want to be clear?

Lawton: Yeah, sure, I well, I don't know, a mob, I'm calling every, the aggregate of people who have been swayed by Amnesty International and the Innocence Project, and all of these other little projects around. I'm saying that yeah what that basically is...the thousands of faxes and emails and phone calls that I and others involved in the case have, have received. I characterize all of that as being a mob. I do.

Smith: District Attorney Lawton. Have you satisfied yourself...

Lawton: I'm not going to answer that quest.. I'm the prosecutor. I do my duty according as I see it according to the law. It is not available to me to substitute my sensibilities for the rule of law. That's my answer, I'm sorry, I do have to go now. It's late.

Smith: I appreciate your time.

Lawton: Thank you so much.

Smith: Thank you.

Spencer Lawton: Goodbye.

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