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The Death Penalty: Unfixable, Unjustly Applied, and Regularly Used as a Tool to Convict the Innocent

(Image: AP Photo/Savannah Morning News)

The Death Penalty: Unfixable, Unjustly Applied, and Regularly Used as a Tool to Convict the Innocent

Today marks a tragic anniversary—10 years ago Georgia ended Troy Davis’ life with a lethal injection. Davis was convicted of killing a police officer in Savannah in 1989, a crime he always maintained, and the evidence indicates, he did not commit.

Troy Davis was convicted primarily based on eyewitness identification. As the years passed, serious doubts about Troy’s guilt surfaced. In fact, seven out of nine witnesses recanted their testimony against him. According to Troy’s lead defense attorney, Jason Ewart, the identifications were gathered under troubling circumstances. The scene was dark and most witnesses were far away. He also noted that many of the witnesses were particularly vulnerable to police pressure and that the identification procedures used for all of the witnesses violated basic principles of objectivity.

In the months leading up to his execution, people from across the political spectrum in Georgia and around the world pleaded with the state to grant a stay of execution. The state declined.

The death penalty is final. Wrongful convictions ending in execution can never be righted. And wrongfully convicted people on death row are not unusual. Since 1973, over 185 people have been exonerated from death row. Despite only having 6% of the state’s population, two of Georgia’s six death row exonerations came out of Chatham County, where Troy’s case originated.

The continued use of the death penalty has a devastating and outsized impact on those already unjustly targeted and victimized by our criminal legal system. Of the 185 people exonerated from death row in the last 48 years, 99 are Black. That means that, in a country where Black individuals comprise only 14% of the total population, they comprise more than 53% of death row exonerees. In some jurisdictions, people of color historically have been even more starkly overrepresented on death row.  The Chattahoochee Judicial Circuit, where GIP and Southern Center for Human Rights client Johnny Gates’ case originated, was once known as the “buckle of the death belt.” Despite its relatively small size, this area pursued capital punishment more aggressively than any other circuit in Georgia, routinely relying on predominantly white attorneys’ intentional selection of all-white juries to harshly condemn Black men, especially those accused of harming white victims.

Nearly 95% of exonerations involving the death penalty involved official misconduct. Georgia Innocence Project is all too familiar with misconduct related to death penalty cases.

Johnny Gates spent 26 years on Georgia’s death row fighting to prove his innocence. From securing a coerced and unreliable confession to suppressing and destroying exculpatory evidence, striking prospective Black jurors, and intentionally creating an all-White jury,  Johnny’s case was rife with misconduct by police and prosecutors. Johnny was released from prison in 2020 after serving more than 43 years for a crime he didn’t commit.

The harm caused by the death penalty goes beyond even this though. All too often it is used as a tool to secure wrongful convictions, coercing and intimidating people into waiving their constitutional rights. In 2019 alone, the use or threat of the death penalty was a factor in more than 13% of exonerations in our country.

Just a few months ago, Dennis Perry was released from prison and exonerated based on new evidence of innocence and official misconduct. Though Dennis was never on death row, the death penalty is a central reason why he had to wait so long to secure his freedom. ADA John Johnson, the prosecutor at Dennis’s trial, threatened the death penalty for double homicide, and the death-qualified jury convicted. Faced with the same jury potentially sentencing him to death, the ADA gave Dennis an impossible choice: waive his right to appeal to avoid the death penalty. Dennis accepted, received two consecutive life sentences, and could not appeal his unjust conviction. In many parts of Georgia, these practices are accepted and unchallenged. In fact, John Johnson won “assistant prosecutor of the year” award, with the nominator even referencing Dennis Perry’s case as a justification for the award.    

These injustices are in no way a thing of the past. The death penalty is still alive and well in Georgia. Since 1976 there have been 76 executions in Georgia. Seventeen of those took place in the past five years. There are currently 45 people on Georgia’s death row.

Unfixable, unjustly applied, and regularly used as a tool to convict the innocent, the death penalty is a continued obstacle in the fight against wrongful convictions and in efforts to achieve a more just criminal legal system.

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