Guy Benson

My post from yesterday opposing the execution of convicted murderer Troy Davis generated an unusually high volume of email (gbenson@townhall.com), so I figured I'd revisit the topic today.  As many of you know, Davis was executed by the State of Georgia last night at 11:08 pm ET.  Many readers directed me to Erick Erickson's response to my initial post -- which I linked in an addendum -- and to Ann Coulter's thorough column on the subject.  Both pieces are absolutely worth a careful read.  There were two principal factual discrepancies between my post and Coulter's column, both of which I hope to address.  One involved the number of witnesses, and the other dealt with physical evidence gathered at the crime scene.  Whereas multiple mainstream media sources have endlessly reported that seven of the nine "witnesses," "eyewitnesses," "key witnesses," or "non-police witnesses" recanted or altered their testimony after the trial, Coulter reports that the correct number of witnesses was 34.  Which figure is correct? 

Upon looking into the matter further, I've concluded that neither number is necessarily inaccurate.  Coulter is absolutely correct that the state called 34 witnesses against Troy Davis at trial.  She was careful not to describe all of these as eyewitnesses.  Quite a few of these state's witnesses may have been called to testify about other elements of the case, including the first -- non-fatal -- shooting Davis committed earlier that evening.  (Say what you will about the man, he was certainly not "innocent").  I've scoured news accounts seeking a clarification to help further reconcile the nine vs. thirty four statistic.  Aside from the Left-wing Guardian's categorization of the nine witnesses as "non-police," such information has been hard to come by.  It's plausible that of the 34 people who testified, nine of them were direct, as-it-happened eyewitnesses (including the one member of the Air Force who Coulter describes as having a clear view of the shooting, and who never reversed his testimony).  Of those nine, a majority have since changed their stories -- although a judge who reviewed these recantations only found merit in two of them, and discounted both for cause. 

There was also the matter of the matching shell cases, which is physical evidence linking Davis to the crime.  The Nation editorial I quoted (and dissented from, in certain aspects) misstated this fact, and I repeated it.  For that, I apologize.  However, I should point out that there was an evidentiary mix-up on this front.  The shell casings from the two separate shootings were accidentally stored in the same evidence bag, a major procedural no-no.  Prosecutors say they cleared up this mishap; Davis' supporters say the snafu cast further doubt on the case.  Erickson's piece also mentioned blood evidence implicating Davis that was deemed inadmissible at trial due to warrant issues.  He presented this detail as the final nail in Davis' proverbial coffin.  It's a compelling point: Davis was convicted even without this piece of evidence.  Then again, Davis never claimed he was not present for the shooting.

There is also the matter of several witnesses claiming that another man had confessed to the murder.  This point was raised by former FBI Director William Sessions in an AJC op/ed he wrote urging a stay of execution.  (In retrospect, this would have been a better piece to draw from than The Nation's commentary).  Again, several judges did not find that information credible enough to set aside or call into question the jury verdict -- which the legal system essentially treats as sacrosanct until definitively proven otherwise.  Finally, there is Coulter's assertion that not a single innocent person has been executed in America in the last 60 years.  She might be right.  She might not.  After all, dozens of innocent people have been freed from death row prior to meeting their demise after newly-discovered exculpatory evidence came to light.  This fact, at the very least, should underscore the point that juries and judges can, and do, make mistakes sometimes.  That reality should inform all of our views on capital punishment, regardless of how we ultimately come down on the final question.

Did all of these conflicts and issues constitute sufficient doubt to block Troy Davis' execution?  To me, personally, they did -- for reasons elucidated in my previous post.  To many others, including multiple rounds of appeals boards and judges, they did not.  Which brings us back to the philosophical argument I raised yesterday.  As someone who values human life -- especially innocent human life -- I believe that in order for the state to take away a citizen's life, the standard of proof of guilt should be as robust as humanly possible.  This might require an even higher legal threshold than the "beyond a reasonable doubt" benchmark established for conviction. 

In the case of Troy Davis, there is a very good chance he murdered a police officer -- an inexcusable and repulsive act.  Erickson and Coulter's well-argued columns enhanced the odds of his guilt, as far as I'm concerned.  However, several shreds of doubt still linger in my mind, and for that reason, I still think last night's execution was a mistake.  Many people, including many of Townhall's valued readers, will disagree with my assessment.  I fully realize that I'm in a fairly small minority not just within this community, but on this issue in general.  Good-faith philosophical debates and disagreements on issues that really matter are what sites like this are all about.  At the end of the day, it was invigorating wading into the dispute and hearing from so many of you.  Thanks, as always, for reading.

Speaking of debates, I'm in Orlando for tonight's GOP battle, which airs on Fox News at 9pm ET.  Stay tuned for a preview post later this afternoon...


Guy Benson

Guy Benson is Townhall.com's Senior Political Editor. Follow him on Twitter @guypbenson.

Author Photo credit: Jensen Sutta Photography