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Wednesday, September 21, 2011 - 6:52am

Troy Davis Put To Death

Updated: 3 years ago.
Georgia has executed Troy Davis for the 1989 murder of Mark McPhail. Thousands of Davis supporters held a vigil Wednesday outside the prison in Jackson. (Photo credit: Josephine Bennett)

Georgia inmate Troy Davis has been executed for the killing of an off-duty police officer in a case that has drawn worldwide support over his claims of innocence.

Courts consistently ruled against him, however, and the officer's family says they finally have justice after 22 years.

Davis was pronounced dead at 11:08 p.m. Wednesday. He was put to death for the 1989 killing of Mark MacPhail. The officer was shot to death while rushing to help a homeless man being attacked by Davis and others.

Davis' global support came from high-profile advocates, including a former U.S. president, the pope and celebrities.

The Supreme Court rejected without comment an eleventh-hour appeal from Davis to prevent Georgia authorities from executing him.

The high court previously granted Davis a stay of execution in 2008 and ordered a court hearing the following year to give Davis a chance to establish his innocence. A federal judge said Davis failed to do so, and the justices refused to review that finding.

His execution had been set to begin at 7 p.m., but as the hour arrived, Georgia prison officials were still waiting for the high court's decision.

Though Davis' attorneys say seven of nine key witnesses against him have disputed all or parts of their testimony, state and federal judges have repeatedly ruled against granting him a new trial.

As the court losses piled up Wednesday, his offer to take a polygraph test was rejected and the Georgia pardons board refused to give him one more hearing.

Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal doesn’t have the power to grant clemency to death row prisoners so he had no say in halting the execution. Indeed, states rarely grant clemency.

Georgia is one of five states whose governors don’t have the authority to commute sentences. Instead, the state’s Board of Pardons and Paroles has had the final word since 1943. It denied Davis's plea for clemency on Tuesday.

Experts say governors and parole boards in many states are issuing far fewer clemencies than in previous years.

Donald E. Wilkes Jr. is a law professor at the University of Georgia. He says that’s partly because retired police and prosecutors often sit on parole boards.

“They’re stacked with people who are part of the law enforcement establishment and feel sort of a vested interest to uphold the other parts of the law enforcement system,” he said in an interview.

Wilkes says parole boards were once staffed with ordinary citizens in part because they are meant to act as a check on the power of law enforcement agencies. And he says Georgia's parole board said in 2007 it wouldn’t execute an inmate unless the guilt was certain.

“It may be probable, it may be likely but it’s not certain," Wilkes said. "But this time, they denied clemency and they didn’t say anything about whether guilt was certain or not.”

Clemencies have declined and so have death sentences. Richard Dieter of the Death Penalty Information Center in Washington says death sentences have declined 60 percent in the last decade. And because of that, he says it’s less likely a court today would have sentenced Davis to death if he had been granted a new trial.

Wilkes of UGA says the witness recantations are not not the only significant problem with the case. He says Davis has not had competent counsel. At a hearing as part of the appeal, his lawyers could have called to testify Sylvester Coles. He's the man some people say is the real killer. But the lawyers failed to subpoena him.

"In my 40 years as a law professor, that's the biggest blunder I've ever seen, and at the time, I said, 'This could be a fatal mistake'," he said.

Wednesday's execution order was Davis' fourth.

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