The execution of Troy Davis is yet another example of the failure of our jury system.
The jury system is a game. Win or lose, the lawyers have their fun. Judges have their nice lifestyle and permanent jobs. But the community is worse off. Wrongly convicted innocents and failed victims are the result. In too many instances, innocent people have been executed and the guilty freed to kill or rape again.
The case has not received much attention in Australia, where discussion of capital punishment is seen as almost irrelevant and reserved for interschool debates. There are several facts about the case that bear upon our legal system. Australia has a similar system of justice as the United States — a jury that decides guilt and a judge that sentences based on precedent and legislative guidelines. Many other countries do not use juries, or use modified juries of expert lay people who preside with qualified judges. In Australia, like the US, prosecution and defence present criminal cases to juries, and rarely does a judge question a witness, even if the lawyers are inadequately presenting their case. This is why our system favours the wealthy, who can afford better lawyers.
Troy Davis was convicted of shooting in cold blood an off-duty police officer Mark MacPhail in Savannah, Georgia. It wasn’t a case of a white jury convicting a black man. There were seven black and five white jurors. Their unanimous verdict was based on witness statements, several of which have been since recanted. There was no DNA tying Davis or anyone else to the crime. He admitted being present when the crime happened, but denied pulling the trigger.
In Georgia a jury decides on whether a defendant receives the death penalty. Davis didn’t want to be executed. He asked the jury to give him “a second chance”. Whatever you might make of that comment, the jury apparently decided that it confirmed his guilt, and that the cold-blooded nature of the crime deserved death.
Troy Davis had, for the past 22 years, persisted that he was innocent of the crime. Eventually a Federal Judge was ordered to review the evidence, including the recanted witness statements. The Judge confirmed the original verdict, cast doubt on the recanted statements, and called defence efforts to overturn the conviction as “largely smoke and mirrors”. In other words, there was not sufficient to suggest someone else did it. The defence declined to put the other main suspect, Coles, on the witness stand. Clearly, Coles wouldn’t have admitted to the killing, and in fact he fingered Davis for the crime in the first place. Unfortunate, then, that there was no DNA evidence.
Those who sought to stop Davis’s execution ask: “why would Davis insist he was innocent, even as they were administering the lethal injection, unless he was truly innocent?” A good question, but I suspect there are many reasons why in his case he wouldn’t want to die hated by all the people who supported him along the way, as would have happened if he confessed.
Still, regardless of this, I blame the jury system for the problem.
We all know that in the US there have been many cases documented where white juries have convicted black defendants on racial grounds.
As well as false convictions, juries often find a defendant innocent, even though they are guilty as hell. Recall the case of Casey Anthony, who was guilty to everyone except the jury members, who apparently watched too much CSI and decided you needed to have perfect DNA evidence to convict.
Then there was the OJ case. Plenty of DNA evidence there. Go figure.
In Australia there was the case of Queensland’s Premier Joh Bjelke Petersen, who was acquitted of perjury, largely it is alleged, because an ambitious member of his political party was on the jury.
There have also been numerous cases around the world of convictions being overturned by new DNA evidence, (and also of suspects being charged with cold cases based on new DNA procedures).
In Queensland, it took an inquest to bring out the evidence needed to charge a person of interest with Daniel Morecombe’s abduction and murder.
In many of these cases, I believe that if we had a system of inquisitional magistrates or judges (similar to France or Italy) who could actively subpoena witnesses and question them, and for serious crimes we had a panel of three or five qualified judges, we would get better outcomes from criminal trials than from juries. This is because juries are lay people, often with limited education. Juries are constructed artificially (many people excuse themselves, and others are booted off by the lawyers). Many jurors don’t understand the technical evidence such as scientific procedures for DNA, gunshot wounds and so on, and many jurors report basing their assessments on their perception of the defendant in the courtroom. Little wonder that defence lawyers get defendants to cover up their tattoos and wear a suit. Judges would see through this. Juries get sucked in.
We should leave the experts to decide guilt or innocence. If we want juries to do anything, let them decide the sentence. After all, half the time the judges don’t sentence as harshly as community standards expect. The recent UK riots is a rare exception to this rule.
Regardless of whether Troy Davis was innocent or guilty, the system failed him, and if it hadn’t failed him it would have failed the victim. We need to get rid of the juries.