Why the Troy Davis Problem Isn't Exclusive to the South

Last night the state of Georgia executed Troy Davis, a man who many think may have been innocent. Since Davis' initial 1991 trial, in which he was found guilty for the shooting death of an off-duty Savannah police officer, seven witnesses who testified against him have recanted. One even went so far as to say that a man who was with Davis that night, and who also later testified against him, actually confessed to the murder while drunk.

Despite the witnesses' recantations, a lack of physical evidence, and impassioned pleas from the Pope, the former chief of the FBI, and many others, both the Georgia Parole Board and the U.S. Supreme Court denied Davis' legal team their attempts to intervene in his execution. He was pronounced dead at 11:08 PM.

Prior to Davis' death, one local journalist summed up his feelings about the case in a Tweet that ended this way: "I just don't understand the South." The implication: Something like this could have never happened north of the Mason-Dixon line, nor especially in progressive Washington state. And yet it almost did.

Back in March, staff writer Keegan Hamilton told the story of Dawud Malik, a man who has been in prison for 44 years, making him the third-longest-serving inmate in Washington.

In 1967, when he was 19, Malik was convicted for his role in a Central District crime spree that included two murders, four armed robberies, and an assault. Four decades later Innocence Project Northwest took an interest in his case.

What the nonprofit found will be instantly familiar to anyone who has ever heard even one story among the ever-growing list of those exonerated from death row.

Dawud Malik.jpg
Dawud Malik: The man who might have been Washington's Troy Davis.
Malik's case featured conflicting eyewitness testimony, a dearth of physical evidence, and poor legal representation. His first lawyer refused to let the teen introduce an alibi for the night of one of the murders--that he was gambling in the company of a dozen other men--for fear it would hurt the all-white jury's opinion of his client.

So why is Malik alive today while Davis isn't? The answer has everything to do with timing.

Malik had the pleasure, if you can call it that, of being on death row in 1972, the same year the Supreme Court enacted a moratorium on capitol punishment. (Ironically enough, because of a case that originated in Georgia.)

Washington still has the death penalty--it was re-instituted in 1981--but because of the quirk in timing, Malik's sentence was vacated, then later reduced to life.

An even better example is Benjamin Harris, the only person ever exonerated from Washington's death row. Harris spent 12 years in jail for the murder of a man in Tacoma's Hilltop area and came within weeks of being executed multiple times before a federal judge vacated his sentence (Harris' court-appointed lawyer had given his case the same amount of attention as he would a shoplifting charge, said the judge).

Tim Ford, a nationally recognized death-penalty lawyer, says he understands why some people might have the perception that an innocent man could never be put to death in a state like Washington. This state doesn't scale: We don't have nearly the same amount of murders as Georgia, or Texas, so therefore our number of row residents is much lower.

But Ford insists that no state (or region) has a monopoly on miscarriages of justice. Washington, he points out, has the same race figures as most other states, with 10 times the percentage of blacks on the row as the population at large. We have the same problems with state elected judges not willing to take a stand and reverse troubled cases (it was a federal judge, after all, who freed Harris). And the same problem with grandstanding prosecutors.

Says Ford: "It happens here just like it happens everywhere else."

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