Bob Barr Op-Ed Piece on Troy Davis and the Death Penalty

Forwarded by Bob Olson, an electoral activist from Long Island, NY. Circulated on the list-serve of the group Free the West Memphis Three.(A group dedicated to proving the innocence of three men in Arkansas.)

June 1, 2009
Op-Ed Contributor
Death Penalty Disgrace

THERE is no abuse of government power more egregious than executing an innocent man. But that is exactly what may happen if the United States Supreme Court fails to intervene on behalf of Troy Davis.

Mr. Davis is facing execution for the 1989 murder of an off-duty police officer in Savannah, Ga., even though seven of the nine witnesses have recanted their testimony against him. Many of these witnesses now say they were pressured into testifying falsely against him by police officers who were understandably eager to convict someone for killing a comrade. No court has ever heard the evidence of Mr. Davis’s innocence.

After the United States Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit barred Mr. Davis from raising his claims of innocence, his attorneys last month petitioned the Supreme Court for an original writ of habeas corpus. This would be an extraordinary procedure — provided for by the Constitution but granted only a handful of times since 1900. However, absent this,
Mr. Davis faces an extraordinary and obviously final injustice.

This threat of injustice has come about because the lower courts have misread the Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996, a law I helped write when I was in Congress. As a member of the House Judiciary Committee in the 1990s, I wanted to stop the unfounded and abusive delays in capital cases that tend to undermine our criminal
justice system.

With the effective death penalty act, Congress limited the number of habeas corpus petitions that a defendant could file, and set a time after which those petitions could no longer be filed. But nothing in the statute should have left the courts with the impression that they were barred from hearing claims of actual innocence like Troy Davis’s.

It would seem in everyone’s interest to find out as best we can what really happened that night 20 years ago in a dim parking lot where Officer Mark MacPhail was shot dead. With no murder weapon, surveillance videotape or DNA evidence left behind, the jury that judged Mr. Davis had to weigh the conflicting testimony of several eyewitnesses to sift out the gunman from the onlookers who had nothing to do with the heinous crime.

A litany of affidavits from prosecution witnesses now tell of an investigation that was focused not on scrutinizing all suspects, but on building a case against Mr. Davis. One witness, for instance, has said she testified against Mr. Davis because she was on parole and was afraid the police would send her back to prison if she did not cooperate.

So far, the federal courts have said it is enough that the state courts reviewed the affidavits of the witnesses who recanted their testimony. This reasoning is misplaced in a capital case. Reading an affidavit is a far cry from seeing a witness testify in open court.

Because Mr. Davis’s claim of innocence has never been heard in a court, the Supreme Court should remand his case to a federal district court and order an evidentiary hearing. (I was among those who signed an amicus brief in support of Mr. Davis.) Only a hearing where witnesses are subject to cross-examination will put this case to rest.

Although the Supreme Court issued a stay of execution last fall, the court declined to review the case itself, and its intervention still has not provided an opportunity for Mr. Davis to have a hearing on new evidence. This has become a matter of no small urgency: Georgia could set an execution date at any time.

I am a firm believer in the death penalty, but I am an equally firm believer in the rights and protections guaranteed by the Constitution. To execute Troy Davis without having a court hear the evidence of his innocence would be unconscionable and unconstitutional.


Bob Barr served in the House of Representatives from 1995 to 2003 and was the United States attorney for the Northern District of Georgia from 1986 to 1990. [Bob Barr was the 2008 Libertarian candidate for President of the United States.]

14 thoughts on “Bob Barr Op-Ed Piece on Troy Davis and the Death Penalty

  1. Robert Milnes

    So Bann Bob Barr is “…a firm believer in the death penalty…”. I am not. If there was no death penalty Bob wouldn’t have to worry about the State of Georgia inexorable blind justice machine.The LP platform doesn’t seem to address this issue. Bob gets the 2008 nomination. I get virtually nada from libs. Bob is a guaranteed loser. I have a reasonable strategy for victory. What is wrong with this picture?

  2. Robert Milnes

    LP platform doesn’t seem to address the death penalty issue. LP & libertarians seem to have some sort of loser complex. Losertarians.

  3. Kimberly Wilder

    Yes. Nader talked about the GM bankruptcy. His new thing is saying…the United States is the only car-producing nation that burdens its car companies with having to provide private health insurance.


    He also did a little pitch at the end for third parties and the fact that they are where the best and most innovative ideas come from.

  4. Kimberly Wilder

    Ross, do you have time to post the Democracy Now thing as an article here? I think it would be good. I don’t have time. Ian’s mom passed away on Sunday and we are having to do lots of family stuff.

  5. libertariangirl

    Oh Bob , trying to right yet another wrong he helped create…

    its all because the lower courts ‘misread’ a law he helped write…

    LOL seriously though ROFL

  6. pdsa

    I don’t like the death penalty. No matter how good a system of justice gets, it can never be perfect, and the death penalty means that somewhere along the line, wrongfully convicted humans will be killed by the state.

    I’ve still got to give Barr a plus for finally admitting that legislation he pushed through as part of the Contract On America, is a primary reason that Troy Davis may very well be executed for a crime he did not commit.

  7. Thomas L. Knapp

    If I had a blind aunt who was blind, in the late stages of Parkinson’s, and had a penchant for robbing banks, and she wanted to take up a hobby that entailed use of a knife, I’d let her spread butter on bread rather than setting her up as a brain surgeon.

    For similar reasons, if the state is going to involve itself in the investigation of crimes and the apprehension, trial, sentencing and punishment of criminals, its powers should be extremely limited.

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