1995: Girvies Davis, framed?

6 comments May 17th, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1995, Illinois executed Girvies Davis for murdering 89-year-old Charles Biebel in Belleville, Ill.

A small-time African-American hood reared in an alcoholic home, Davis was not linked to the murder by any physical evidence, or even any eyewitnesses. There was only one piece of evidence against him: his signed confession.

Unfortunately, the source lacked all credibility.

Davis copped to some 20 crimes under police interrogation. Officially, he did this when he voluntarily wrote out a list of evildoings and spontaneously passed it to a guard, which would be hard to believe even if the guy weren’t nearly illiterate. (Even the official story later became that Davis must have dictated the confession to someone else, like a cellmate.)

According to Davis’s later account, he signed statements the police had prepared for him … at gunpoint. The police logs say that he was taken out for a drive that night (“for evidence”), and conveniently confessed in the small hours of the morning.

Even though our man’s involvement in most of these “admitted” crimes (anything outstanding in the area that was still unsolved, it seems) was disproven, he couldn’t get traction in the courts once his conviction by an all-white jury was secured. Paradoxically, because there was no other evidence in the case to discredit, that “a-ha!” exoneration moment became all but impossible to secure despite the other holes in the case.

More action was had in the court of public opinion, where the usual suspects enlisted any number of pro-death penalty prosecutors and Republicans with serious misgivings about the case.

Time magazine lodged a naive early entrant in the “wait, wrongful confessions happen?” genre. The New York Times also covered the Davis clemency campaign:*

“The public sees the Bundys and the Gacys executed and they cheer,” said Gary V. Johnson, a former Kane County, Ill., prosecutor, who sought the death penalty in the past but opposes the execution of Mr. Davis. “The public doesn’t see the Girvies Davises.”

What savvy pols like Illinois Gov. Jim Edgar could see was that in the 1990s, all the political upside was in denying clemencies. So that’s what he did.

Years later, Davis’s last appellate attorney still believes “that the State of Illinois executed Girvies Davis for a crime I am sure he didn’t commit.”

Northwestern University journalism professor David Protess was also convinced of Girvies Davis’s innocence, and led a team of students researching the case back before he was famous for doing exactly that sort of thing. His work did not yield success on this occasion, but to judge by his account (pdf) of a last conversation he and his students had hours before Davis was put to death, it helped lead to the school’s later headline-grabbing wrongful conviction exposes.

Protess put [Davis] on the speakerphone, and the group gathered around. “Try not to mourn for me,” Davis said. “Move on with your lives. Just try to help people like me who get caught up in the system.” …

Davis had a final request: He wanted Protess and the students to promise that this wouldn’t be their last crusade in a capital case.

The room fell silent. “Of all the guys you know on the Row, who do you think most deserves help?” Protess asked.

Buck Williams,” Davis answered without hesitation. “I’m certain he’s innocent.”

Protess … vowed that he and his next group of students would leave no stone unturned for Williams.

Protess was as good as his word.

In less than a year, Williams along with Verneal Jimerson, Willie Rainge and Kenneth Adams were free men after a generation in prison.** These men, known as the “Ford Heights Four”, would win the largest civil rights lawsuit payment in U.S. history for their wrongful imprisonment.

* Davis may also have been the first death-row prisoner in the U.S. with his own Internet site and online clemency petition, although these interesting artifcats have long since vanished into the digital oubliette. Gov. Edgar reportedly received 1,200 emails asking him to spare his prisoner’s life … testament even then to elected officials’ disregard for online advocacy.

** Williams and Jimerson were on death row; Rainge and Adams were serving life sentences.

Also on this date

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,History,Illinois,Lethal Injection,Murder,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,USA,Wrongful Executions

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2003: Nobody in Illinois

15 comments January 11th, 2009 Headsman

Six years ago today, a scandal-plagued governor of Illinois cleared out the state’s death row.

Republican George Ryan, in a speech two days before the end of his term, announced a mass commutation for anyone under sentence of death in Illinois — 157 people plus 10 others with pending legal challenges to vacated sentences, and four condemned men pardoned outright.

Once a pro-death penalty legislator, Ryan grew increasingly discomfited with the state’s administration of the error-prone ultimate sanction.

That “demon of error” was dramatically unveiled for Ryan by Anthony Porter, a mentally retarded death row inmate who fortuitously avoided execution by two days on a legal technicality, and was subsequently exonerated by Northwestern University journalism students.

Seen as part of a pattern of wrongful convictions — like that of Rolando Cruz, who was cleared in the early 90’s despite the dogged efforts of then-Attorney General (and present-day quasi-Senator) Roland Burris to execute him in the face of exculpatory DNA evidence.

The governor imposed a moratorium on conducting executions for most of his term, culminating with this day’s controversial (though it did score him a Nobel Peace Prize nomination) announcement. Maybe there’s just something in the water at the Springfield governor’s mansion that attracts its residents to impolitic death penalty interventions.

Successor Rod Blagojevich called Ryan’s blanket clemency “a big mistake”, and his formal continuation of the Ryan moratorium on actual executions has been a dead letter since inheriting a vacant death row meant that no capital case reached the end of its appeals on his watch.

For the favor of sparing Blagojevich the burden of handling a death warrant — although one doesn’t get the sense that Blago is the type for a troubled conscience — George Ryan has been unkindly repaid.

Now residing in federal prison on corruption charges, the ex-governor’s own clemency petition has been complicated by sensational allegations of Blagojevich’s graft.

That petition is addressed to an outgoing executive oppositely inclined on the death row commutation question. Ryan authorized one actual execution early in his term, and spared this day’s host; George W. Bush, his virtual mirror image, has issued one commutation and carried out 155 executions during his time as chief executive of Texas and of the United States.

George Ryan is reportedly skeptical of his prospects for receiving a pardon.

Also on this date

Entry Filed under: 21st Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Illinois,Not Executed,Pardons and Clemencies,Ripped from the Headlines,USA

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