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Troy Davis, Clarence Thomas -- and Georgia on Our Minds

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A worldwide clemency campaign led by Color of Change and similar death penalty opponents and skeptics generated hundreds of thousands of signatures saying that even a 174-page district court review of the case in 2010 did not provide a just result.

But the victim's mother, Anneliese MacPhail, among others, had a different view. "He's had all the chances in the world," she said of Davis. "It has got to come to an end."

The Supreme Court responded with a one-sentence statement at 10:43 p.m. on Sept. 21: "The application for stay of execution of death presented to Justice Thomas and by him referred to the Court is denied."  Davis, age 42, proclaimed his innocence once again, and promptly received a fatal injection that had its effect by 11:08 p.m., when he was pronounced dead.

Brandeis Initiative

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Prompted by this and other controversies regarding eyewitness testimony at trials, the Schuster Institute for Investigative Journalism at Brandeis University last week announced a unique project to explain to other journalists and citizens the role that mistaken eyewitness identification plays, including in lots of convictions that end in exonerations.

They describe how eyewitness mis-identification played a large role in the Davis case, in which 7 out of 9 eyewitnesses recanted their original identification of Davis. Also, it has factored in convicting 75% of the 273 men and women who have been found to be innocent through DNA testing. The guide presents a number of resources on eyewitness science and other research to aid local journalists in their own investigations of possible wrongful convictions or current police practices in their area.

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More generally, the Schuster Institute's initiative on eyewitness ID is in the tradition of the university's namesake, Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis. The first Jew to reach the Court, he was an eloquent advocate of justice who often found himself in the minority throughout his career. But his values obviously endure. Lindsay Jean Markel, the Schuster Institute's assistant director, described the ID program's research goals this way:

"Discover the science that says eyewitness identification is highly unreliable -- and write about DNA exonerations in your own state in which inmates were wrongfully convicted based on faulty eyewitness identification -- sometimes by several people who were simply wrong, as DNA tests have proved. Experts say that the human memory is malleable, easily corruptible, and that eyewitnesses' recollections should be treated with the delicacy of any other crime scene evidence."

Let's try to use this research tool, available here, and any other helpful ones. Realistically, we cannot know for certain exactly what happened in most of these cases. The Banks case in Georgia proved that to me long ago. I learned that Banks was innocent beyond any reasonable doubt -- but that no one has established who actually shot the two victims he found.

In 1981, I ended my editorial this way: Jerry Lee Banks suffered greatly because he acted like a good citizen in notifying police about those bodies he found in the woods when he was deer hunting. He said, "If I hadn't called [the police], I'm not sure I ever would have felt good about myself again."

The bottom line, sadly, is that it is difficult to know guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. But we can keep trying -- and can stay vigilant to ensure that our leaders on the courts are doing the same.

A version with more background links is cross-posted on the Justice Integrity Project site
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Andrew Kreig is an investigative reporter, attorney, author, business strategist, radio host, and longtime non-profit executive based in Washington, DC. His most recent book is "Presidential Puppetry: Obama, Romney and Their Masters," the (more...)

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