Troy Davis execution fuels eyewitness ID debate

This undated photo released by the Georgia Department of Corrections shows death-row inmate Troy Davis. (AP Photo/Georgia Department of Corrections)
AP/Georgia Dept. of Corrections
Troy Davis execution fuels eyewitness ID debate
Troy Davis
AP/Georgia Dept. of Corrections

(CBS/AP) BOULDER, Colo. - Before he was executed in Georgia last week, Troy Davis brought worldwide attention to his case by challenging the trustworthiness of bystanders who said they saw him shoot a police officer.

Davis lost the battle to spare his life, but experts say his case adds fuel to an already-simmering debate over how much weight courts should give to eyewitness testimony.

Last month, New Jersey's top court made it easier for criminal defendants to challenge the credibility of eyewitnesses, while the U.S. Supreme Court is set in November to hear its first case dealing with eyewitness evidence in 34 years. Such issues also played a role in the abolition of Illinois' death penalty earlier this year and a 2009 law narrowing when capital punishment can be sought in Maryland.

Davis' execution outraged hundreds of thousands of people who said they feared an innocent man was being put to death, based on his defense attorneys' assertion that witnesses who had identified Davis in court as a killer two decades ago had tried years later to take it all back. Dorothy Ferrell was one of those witnesses.

"Well, I'm real sure, positive sure, that that is him, and you know, it's not a mistaken identity," Ferrell told a Savannah jury in 1991. "I did see him and you know, on the fact of what happened and how it happened, you know, I'm pretty sure it's him."

Nine years later, Ferrell signed an affidavit saying she didn't actually see the 1989 shooting of off-duty police officer Mark MacPhail, but pointed at Davis to tell police what they wanted to hear.

Legal experts say Davis' case serves as an example in the debate over eyewitness reliability, particularly in death penalty cases, when scientific studies show the human memory can be surprisingly faulty.

"There's going to be some broader discussions about whether the death penalty is viable at all, but before that happens there's going to be efforts to reform and see what can be done in states that believe in it and regularly use it," said Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, which opposes capital punishment.

Complete Coverage of Troy Davis on Crimesider