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Georgia's dysfunctional death penalty

Troy Davis' execution was the fifth scheduled this year. Each raises hard questions about the death penalty.



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Both men were sentenced to death.

Brown's attorneys later argued that Brown embellished Alderman's role in the killing after he agreed to cooperate with the government. Brown's death sentence was later overturned, and he was released from prison after serving 12 years.

But according to several death penalty experts, the real travesty in the Alderman case wasn't the disparity between Brown's and Alderman's fate – though they claim the issue of co-defendants cutting deals against each other in capital cases is troubling.

Instead, the problem with Alderman is the length of time he spent on death row. Barbara Alderman was murdered in 1974. Thirty-four years later, Alderman was still awaiting death – making him the longest-running death-row inhabitant in Georgia.

On the surface, it would appear that spending more than three decades on death row is hardly different from Alderman's likeliest alternative: a sentence of life in prison without parole. The difference, according to Mears, is the disparity between life on death row and life in general population.

On death row, inmates are completely isolated from one another. They have no option to work –not even the most menial task. They simply sit, alone, and wait – and wait and wait.

In regular prison, inmates can create some semblance of a life behind bars. Not so on death row, according to Mears. "One of my clients on death row once said, 'Ten years here is like 50 years in a regular prison.'"

On Sept. 16, Alderman had run out of appeals. The Pardons and Paroles Board denied clemency. He didn't make a special request for a last meal, and barely touched the food he was given. Nor did he make a final comment. A chaplain offered a prayer: "Jack, may Christ free you from excruciating pain."

Witnesses later said Alderman was calm when the needle was placed in his arm. In the minutes before his death, he smiled.

It was a quiet death –one that preceded the media storm that was erupting over the next execution scheduled in Georgia.

Troy Davis

Execution date: Sept. 23

When Troy Davis stood trial in 1991 for the senseless killing of Savannah police officer Mark MacPhail, a parade of witnesses pointed to him as the shooter. In the absence of forensic evidence –a murder weapon, a fingerprint or a trace of DNA left behind –those nine witnesses were enough to convince a jury that Davis committed the murder, and that he deserved to die.

In the years following the trial, however, seven of those nine witnesses have recanted their testimony. Most say they were pressured by police to identify Davis.

The two witnesses who stood by their testimony have issues, too. One of them initially told police that he didn't see who shot MacPhail. The other witness, Sylvester "Redd" Coles, went to the police station the day after the shooting and, accompanied by his attorney, tipped off investigators that Davis was their man. Years later, Coles allegedly told three people that he, in fact, had killed the officer.

During the 17 years that followed Davis' death sentence, the courts repeatedly ruled that the new evidence was presented too late. Last year, Davis got an execution date. His only hope was for an intervention by the Georgia Supreme Court, the U.S. Supreme Court, or the state Board of Pardons and Paroles –the same board that, just four months earlier, commuted the sentence of Samuel David Crowe.

"I had a feeling that once [Crowe] had been commuted, it would be very difficult politically for the board to commute anybody else," Bright now says. "There's only so many commutations that are politically possible."

Still, when Davis' execution date had first been set back in the fall of 2007, the board had come to his rescue. Per the board's request, a stay of execution was granted – less than 24 hours before Davis was to be killed.

At the time, the board signed an order that indicated it was troubled by Davis' case. "The members of the Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles will not allow an execution to proceed in this State unless and until its members are convinced that there is not doubt as to the guilt of the accused."

Shortly thereafter, the state Supreme Court agreed to hear Davis' most recent appeal.

Then, in 2008, the Georgia Supreme Court and the Pardons and Paroles Board dealt Davis two serious blows. In a 4-3 ruling, the state Supreme Court decided not to allow the recanted testimony to be considered. The decision, which basically came down to a legal technicality, stated that unless the original testimony was "the purest fabrication," the recantations weren't admissible.

Chief Justice Leah Sears, writing for the dissent, was dismayed at the ruling. "I believe that this case illustrates that this Court's approach ... is overly rigid and fails to allow an adequate inquiry into the fundamental question, which is whether or not an innocent person might have been convicted or even, as in this case, might be put to death."

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