September 20, 2011

A Quick Word on Criminal Procedure

It appears that Troy Davis, convicted of murdering an off-duty police officer in Savannah, Georgia in 1991, will be executed on Wednesday night. The Georgia State Board of Pardons and Paroles rejected Davis’s request for clemency this morning, clearing the way for his scheduled death. He’s already exhausted his other legal avenues, barring some kind of last minute Hail Mary.

For more on the background of the Davis case and the issues raised regarding his guilt or innocence, this dairy at Daily Kos hits all the high notes. I don’t know enough about the case to opine one way or the other on the man’s guilt, although I did skim the federal judge’s lengthy opinion after an unprecedented procedural remand by the Supreme Court a couple of years ago and found the case much less clear than either side portrays it. Given my opposition to the death penalty in all situations, whether Davis is guilty or not is not an issue to me with regards to whether he should be killed.

But I wanted to chime in on one facet of the discussion, particularly as raised by comments to the New York Time article I linked to above. The article makes multiple references to Davis’s failure to prove his innocence, to which many folks in the comments respond with shock and horror. As summed up by one person:
Am I reading this correctly? The goober judge who refused to grant a new trial said that the defense had failed 'to prove the defendant's innocence?' What law school did he go to? In Georgia defendants have to prove their innocence?
Not to stick up for any particular "goober judge," but, yes, in Georgia and the rest of the United States, defendants have to prove their innocence if they have already been convicted by a jury.

Our system, for better or worse, reveres trial court fact finding, particularly jury verdicts. I’ve written before about how deferential appellate courts are to verdicts in criminal cases. That deference continues all through the process. It simply is not enough for a defendant to poke holes in the prosecution’s case years down the road. It’s not enough to show that a new trial based on the evidence as it stands now would result in a different outcome. You must prove that you are innocent, a staggeringly high burden to meet without some sort of forensic breakthrough to hang your hat on. It may be a shitty system (I’m inclined to think so), but it’s the one we’ve got and it’s no use harping on isolated high-profile cases like Davis’s when the problem lies in the bigger picture, not it’s peculiar brush strokes.

None of that has any bearing on the ultimate truth of whether Davis murdered that officer decades ago, of course. But, as I’ve written before, courts aren’t designed to be places to learn the truth. They’re about justice which, sometimes, doesn’t wind up being all that just.

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