Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Troy Davis

In my Psychology of Law class at Wellesley College, I was sad to learn just how fallible eyewitness accounts and appalled that they are often the only source of evidence used to convict people of crimes. As a class exercise, professor Linda Carli surprised us one day to test our own eye-witnessing skills.

In the middle of a lecture when she was talking about the death penalty, the door opened and a man walked in with a big ballooned baseball bat and began to hit our poor professor with it. She said a few things to him and he walked out. She then passed out a piece of paper that had questions about what had just happened.

Questions like:
"How tall was the suspect?"
"How much did he weigh?"
"What race was the suspect?"
"Did he have any facial hair or is there anything that stood out about the suspect that you remember?"
"Describe the weapon."
"How many times did he use the weapon?"
"What was the attack about?"

There were many more questions that I don't remember at the top of my head right now but the point of this exercise was to prove how fallible our memory and observation skills were. When the surveys were tallied up, his height ranged from 5'5" to 6'5" and he was 6'1". His weight ranged from 150 pounds to 300 pounds and he was 180 pounds. He was a light-skinned Italian but many said he was African American and some thought he was Indian, Latino, etc. Most people remembered the conversation they had but they couldn't remember the weapon he used even though he was waving it around for a good 3 minutes. Sad thing was that he was a campus police officer so he wasn't a completely unfamiliar face at our small liberal arts college (pop. 2600 at the time I was there).

After this class, I learned about the Innocence Project which is an organization that helps exonerate the wrongly accused through DNA testing. It hurt to think of all the innocent people who were executed before DNA testing came about.

However, many still are unable to get DNA testing and in cases where there is no physical evidence, no weapon, and the conviction comes purely through eyewitness accounts, the accused have a slim chance of overturning their sentence. From the Innocence Project:
Experts estimate that only 5-10% of all criminal cases involve biological evidence that could be subjected to DNA testing. In the other 90-95% of crimes, DNA testing is not an option – so the criminal justice system relies on other kinds of evidence, including forensic disciplines that may not be scientifically sound or properly conducted.
The most high-profile case that you should know about right now is the case against Troy Davis. Troy Davis was convicted with the murder of a Georgia police officer in 1991. He's been on death row for almost two decades but was granted 4 stays and is still awaiting execution. There was no physical evidence, no weapon. So how did he get convicted? 9 eyewitness testimonies pointed the finger at him. Interestingly, 7 of those 9 eyewitnesses have since recanted their testimonies, stating that they were forced, coerced, or threatened to saying that Troy was the murderer. 1 of the 2 eyewitnesses who have not recanted their testimonies is a suspect himself whose whereabouts the night of the murder is highly questionable.

Amnesty International is one of many orgs that has been pushing Troy's case. You can read more about it on their website if you want to get involved.

For the new Cause in 60 seconds series we are doing at Causecast, we launched the series with Troy Davis's case. I helped edit this piece so please take a look at it and comment below. There are many ways to get involved with his case as well as with abolishing the death penalty.

Here are a few links to help you.

Sign the Petition to re-open Troy's case at Amnesty's website.
Join the Abolitionist Action Committee.
Read the article and watch the vid on Troy here.
Shortened URL for your relinking purposes: causecast.org/troydavis

Watch it on Causecast's website with accompanying article.

This is the first of many C60 videos we will be doing. The second one is about Invisible Children. Stay Tuned!

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