A shameful travesty

I have no idea whether Troy Davis shot and killed a Georgia police officer in 1989.  I do know is that there is a very reasonable doubt as to whether he committed this crime.  In fact, any reasonable person would honestly have to conclude that it is an absolute travesty of justice to put a man to death when there is so much doubt about his court case.  His conviction rests entirely upon the weakest and most fallible form of evidence– eyewitness testimony.  Everybody who reads this blog surely knows how fraught with error eyewitness testimony can be.  One might say, but there were 9 eyewitnesses!  However, as this really nice Slate piece makes clear, there were systematic factors which could easily have led all 9 to make the same false conclusion:

We all know how hard it is to remember the faces of strangers we might encounter on the street. (Does she look familiar?) We might think that in a high-stakes criminal case, police would take precautions to carefully test the memory of an eyewitness who saw a stranger commit a crime. Indeed, police know they must do that; they conduct lineups as one kind of test. But we have also long known that serious mistakes can happen if the police suggest to the eyewitnesses whom to pick out. This can happen unintentionally, if the officer running the lineup knows who the suspect is and gives inadvertent cues. It is also police misconduct if the officers openly suggest to the eyewitness whom to pick out. It is considered suggestive if the police go around showing eyewitnesses single photos of just the suspect they have in mind. Or if they merely make suggestive comments.

Yet somehow the police did all of the above and more in Troy Davis’ case—a perfect storm of botched eyewitness-identification procedures. Police did show photo arrays to most of the eyewitnesses—eventually. Although police made up a five-photo array with Davis’ picture in it, they waited five to 10 days before using it to test the memories of any eyewitnesses. Why wait? Eyewitness memory decays rapidly. But in the meantime, police plastered wanted photos with Troy Davis’ image—the same photo they put in the photo array—all around the neighborhood, and it ran widely on all of the local media outlets. Witnesses did not miss those wanted postings. [emphasis mine]  Witnesses also described feeling pressure to identify Troy Davis. For example, one testified at trial about being told that “if I don’t cooperate with them, that I’m gonna be in prison for ten to twelve years.”

Surely, there’s some people involved in this (Georgia Parole board?) who are willing to see a possibly innocent man executed for political reasons (can’t let a convicted cop-killer go free, even if maybe he’s not actually the killer).  But what I really think is at work here is more psychological biases.  Who is really willing to admit to themselves that they may very well have sent an innocent man to death row?  Not too many police, prosecutors, or judges I’ve seen (heck, I’ve seen a number of cases where they keep arguing they got the right guy despite overwhelming DNA evidence come to light).   Faced with admitting that they may have made such a horrendous mistake, I think it is psychologically protective to simply double-down and convince oneself more than ever that the convicted person must be guilty.  All too human.   Kudos to those who can admit maybe they were wrong when there is a human life at stake.  If, as expected, Davis is executed later today, this truly is a travesty of American justice and any ideal of America as a civil society.

About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State http://faculty.chass.ncsu.edu/shgreene

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