Does Innocence Matter?

Should innocence be considered as a reason not to execute someone?  That it should may seem self-evident.  Yet, apparently innocence is not considered a valid reason for a federal appeal for a death penalty case at the moment.

I was surprised to learn this when I received an e-mail from the regional office of Amnesty International about the Supreme Court’s stay of execution for Troy Davis an hour and a half before his scheduled execution in Georgia pending a ruling on whether to hear his case Monday. If the Supreme Court agrees to hear Troy’s case, it could affect many others.  If they refuse to hear it, he could be executed as soon as Monday evening. 


According to Amnesty International:

If the case is heard, it would likely be in October with a spring ruling.  The case potentially has huge ramifications.  Currently, the federal appeals process has been closed to Troy due to the ’96 Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act, which only allows habeas petitions when there is a constitutional question.  Believe it or not, the courts have not ruled whether it is a constitutional violation to execute the innocent, although they did hint in this direction in a ’93 decision.  As a result, this case could carve out a constitutional right for the innocent and reopen federal appeals courts to capital cases.  It is very far-reaching, and it shows how important Troy’s case could become. 

Reading up more about Troy’s case on Amnesty’s death penalty page, I was struck when reading the report by the questions raised by a number of eye witnesses who have recanted their testimony or come forward since, saying Troy is innocent; some saying they were coerced by police, others frightened by the man they say did it.


I was also moved by the interview with Troy’s sister, Martina Davis-Correia, about the affect Troy’s arrest, trial and sentence to death has had on their family. 

“I know Troy is innocent,” she resolutely affirms. “Me and my brother are really, really close, where we can finish each others sentences and whether he was guilty or not I would stand by him, but the fact that he’s innocent and in this position, it’s like stabbing me in the chest.”


Her family was not allowed into the court during the trial until the sentencing phase, apparently a common technique in death penalty cases to make the jury believe the defendant has no one who supports him.  It was especially hard on their mother, and their father died within months of the verdict. 


Martina Davis, a long time Amnesty International member, is currently AI’s State Death Penalty Abolition Coordinator (SDPAC) for Georgia and Chair of AIUSA’s Program to Abolish the Death Penalty Steering Committee. 


“I joined Amnesty when I was a teenager in the army when I was in Colorado Springs, I think I was like 19 years old,” she recalls. “That was 1986. I joined Amnesty never thinking that I’d be involved as far as death penalty work or have my brother involved in a death penalty case. I was in the library and I saw something about Amnesty International and how they work with the UN to help people around the world, so I signed up by mail.”


Currently, everyone is waiting for the Supreme Court’s decision on Monday. Amnesty International is asking people to take action through their web page on Troy’s case:


After consulting closely with Troy’s legal team, the best course of action will be to continue writing letters targeting the Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles, but have those letters delivered to Amnesty International’s Atlanta office, so that they can be hand delivered at the appropriate time if it becomes necessary. Please direct all such actions to our website – – so that we can keep an accurate count of all the letters that are written on behalf of Troy.


They also warn that some other actions may not be helpful:


Please direct all such actions in this way. More letters, phone calls, emails or faxes to the Board would not be helpful and could be counterproductive. Actions to other Georgia authorities, like the Governor or Attorney General, would also not be helpful. And, of course, actions directed at the U.S. Supreme Court would be counterproductive as well. So, please do NOT plan any rallies or demonstrations in front of the US Supreme Court as such actions have the potential to jeopardize a positive outcome in this case.

Also, if you know of any high profile figures (especially Conservatives) who would be willing to write an op.ed. regarding Troy’s case, please let us know ASAP.


Video from a rally in Georgia earlier this month:



Troy’s is not the only death row case where innocence is an issue. Death row exoneree Juan Roberto Melendez will be speaking at colleges in Seattle, Tacoma and Olympia next week.  Juan was released after nearly 18 years on death row in Florida for a crime he didn’t commit.  He was the 99th death row inmate in the U.S. to be exonerated and released.  There are currently 127.  How many who are innocent have been executed? That should be reason enough to abolish the death penalty.




Juan’s speaking schedule for the Puget Sound area:


October 1: Talk at University of Seattle School of Law, Sullivan Hall, at 6:00 p.m. -7:30 p.m.
October 2: Talk at University of Washington School of Law at 12:30 p.m.-1:30 p.m.
October 2: Talk at University of Pudget Sound at 7:00 p.m. -8:30 p.m.
October 3: Talk at St. Martin’s University, Lacey, WA at 4:00 p.m.-5:30 p.m.

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