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Jurors' doubts weigh heavily in Davis case

  Legal Business  -   POSTED: 2007/08/06 13:32

Five days before Troy Anthony Davis' scheduled execution, Brenda Forrest got a call from her husband of eight years.

He had just heard a report on a Chicago radio station about a convicted cop killer from their hometown of Savannah. The report said serious questions had surfaced about whether the man was actually guilty of the 1989 murder.

"Oh my God," Forrest said, finally letting go of the secret she had kept. "I was on that jury. I've got to get involved."

The next day, Forrest called lawyers at the Georgia Resource Center, whose attorneys help represent Davis. She reviewed recanted testimonies of seven of nine trial witnesses and also the affidavits of others who had stepped forward with additional information. Some implicated another man in the murder of Officer Mark Allen MacPhail.

Forrest signed a sworn statement of her own:

"I have some serious doubts about the justness of Mr. Davis' death sentence. I find it very troubling that the jury's sentence was based upon incomplete and unreliable evidence. If I had been aware of this newly gathered evidence and had the benefit of it at trial, I would not have sentenced Mr. Davis to death."

Three other jurors in Davis' 1991 trial signed similar statements that his defense lawyers presented to the Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles at a hearing on July 16, the day before Davis was set to die.

Curtis Wilson, Isaiah Middleton and Cynthia Quarterman also expressed concerns as to the fairness of Davis' punishment given after reviewing the revised testimonies.

The clemency board temporarily stayed Davis' execution.

On Friday, the Georgia Supreme Court agreed to hear Davis' request that he be granted a new trial. A spokeswoman for the clemency board said it would announce today if would hold a hearing previously scheduled for Thursday after the five board members have reviewed the Supreme Court's decision to hear the case.

Forrest said she believes Davis should not be put to death until the new evidence in his case is examined by a judge or jury. No court has yet seen the new information because of a 1996 federal law designed to streamline capital cases and place a time limit on inmate appeals.

"I can't say for sure if he's guilty or not, but he deserves to be heard," Forrest said.

It's not common to have four jurors change their minds based on new evidence, said one legal expert who has been studying capital case juries for 15 years.

"In this case, the fact that there are any jurors, but especially four with doubts about the death penalty, would sort of indicate that chances of a life sentence would be significant," said Scott Sundby, law professor at Washington & Lee University.

Because of the federal law, however, the difficulty is getting any forum to hear from Davis' defense attorneys, Sundby said. "I am impressed that the pardons board is open to this evidence," he said.

Sundby said a lot is asked of jurors who must make a decision of life and death.

"One of their greatest frustrations is when they have gone through this process and then they find out they didn't have the full picture," he said. "There is a sense of betrayal on their part. Their view is: You asked us to condemn someone to death, and we didn't have all the facts."

Forrest knows that if Davis' execution is carried out, it will be done in her name.

Since the trial, she has wrestled with her faith and the moral correctness of the death penalty. She is troubled by the case even more now that she has read the new testimony.

Forrest was 35 and working as a chemist when she was called for jury duty. She said few of the witnesses seemed like upstanding citizens, and she questioned their credibility.

"They were not people who were believable," Forrest said in a telephone interview from her office in Chicago, where she relocated in 1999.

The jury of seven blacks and five whites deliberated for one hour and 57 minutes before returning a verdict.

In the somber jury room, Forrest said her fellow jurors debated the testimony of Harriet Murray, who testified that she saw Davis with a "smirky-like smile" on his face when he shot MacPhail. The jury found her story compelling but discussed whether she could have really seen what was happening from a distance and in the darkness of night, Forrest recalled.

After the trial, in a 2002 affidavit, Murray was more ambiguous about who she saw that night. She no longer named Davis as the killer. Murray has since died.

Other jurors, Forrest said, talked about Davis' demeanor. She always thought he had a look of resignation.

There was a conversation about possible innocence. Is there any doubt about Davis' guilt based on what we heard? the jurors asked themselves.

Then they wrote down their verdicts. It was unanimous.

"I was under oath to vote according to the evidence we heard," she said. "I was compelled to agree [he was guilty] at the time.'

But the trial troubled Forrest. She never spoke about it with anyone, not even with the man she later married.

She got on with her new life, far from Savannah, far from the prison at Jackson, where Davis has been on death row for 16 years.

"What I did was put it out of my mind," she said.

After reviewing the new defense documents, she was eager to know what the clemency board would decide. "I was sitting on pins and needles to see if he got a stay," she said.

Now, like every other interested party in the case, Forrest has to wait longer.

If Davis winds up being executed, Forrest says she will have to live with herself. It will haunt her until her own death.

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