Girvies Davis was executed in Illinois in 1995 after a conviction based largely on his own confession. Davis’ appellate attorney was David A. Schwartz, who now serves as senior vice-president and baseball legal counsel at CSMG Sports. Schwartz writes in the Chicago Tribune that Davis “confessed” to many crimes, most of which he indisputably did not commit. Davis said that the only reason he confessed to the murder that sent him to death row was that the police threatened to kill him if he did not sign the confession. Schwartz, who was an attorney with Jenner & Block at the time he represented Davis, laments the fact that Davis’ case had no DNA and that the times were different from those that led to the clearing of Illinois’ death row by Gov. George Ryan in 2003:

I paused on Wednesday, as I do every May 17, to remember a man who was executed for a murder I am certain he didn’t commit.

Timing is everything, of course, and former Gov. George Ryan’s decision in 2003 to empty Illinois’ Death Row came too late to save my client and friend, Girvies Davis, who was put to death on May 17, 1995.

By the time I got involved in the case, 15 years after the trial and five months before the execution, nothing short of finding the real murderer would have saved (Girvies) Davis’ life. Our criminal justice system admits mistakes only when it has to, and belated attempts to cast doubt on a verdict are usually swept aside, regardless of merit, unless the defendant can actually prove his innocence.

Proving a defendant’s innocence, though, is a tall task. Because there were no witnesses against Davis, there were no statements to recant; because there was no forensic evidence, there were no DNA tests to run.

In December 1978, Charles Biebel was found shot to death in his mobile home near Belleville, an Illinois town outside St. Louis. For 9 months the murder remained unsolved, and Davis was never considered a suspect.

Then, in the fall of 1979, 10 days after Davis was arrested in an unrelated robbery, the police announced that he had confessed to 20 murders and attempted murders.

Davis’ “confession” to the Biebel murder was the only non-circumstantial evidence used against him at his trial.

Of the 20 crimes to which Davis supposedly confessed, however, it is now undisputed that he had nothing to do with most of them. Other defendants were later convicted, and prosecutors stated in court (in the other cases) that Davis’ confessions were false.

Yet these same prosecutors had no problem using one of the false confessions to secure his death sentence.

According to Davis, here is why he signed the confessions: After he had spent 10 days in custody, the police checked him out of jail at 10 p.m. (the logs at the jail confirmed this) and drove him to a deserted road outside of town.

The police, Davis said, took off his handcuffs and leg shackles, drew their guns and produced a stack of already written confessions. They told him if he didn’t sign they would kill him and say he died trying to escape.

Davis signed everything they had.

“You would have signed too,” he told me years later, “if you had been on the side of that road instead of me.”

The police had their confessions, and Davis was back in jail by dawn.

Davis was certainly not a sympathetic figure, given his long rap sheet, his history as a drug addict and his frequent outbursts in the courtroom. To an all-white jury in Belleville in 1980, this rough-looking 20-year-old black kid from East St. Louis would have appeared guilty even before the lawyers delivered opening statements.

A confession simply sealed the deal, even if there was never an adequate explanation for the middle-of-the-night outing that precipitated it.

All of this happened while I was in grade school. In 1994, fresh out of law school and 14 years removed from Davis’ trial, I joined a Chicago law firm and was assigned to work pro bono on a petition seeking clemency for Davis.

Working with a team of attorneys, we found a teacher and a parole officer who signed sworn affidavits stating that Davis was illiterate when arrested and could not possibly have understood what he was signing.

We drafted a clemency petition to then-Gov. Jim Edgar, raising these issues and dozens of others and urging that Davis’ death sentence be commuted to life in prison without parole.

We lost.

It was the wrong time, and we had the wrong governor. Our ability to cast doubt on Davis’ guilt was not enough to spare his life, and we were never able to prove his innocence. We were unable to reconstruct his whereabouts on the day of the murder to find an alibi. I was certain that Davis was innocent but was never able to prove it, a fact that still haunts me 11 years later.

Davis didn’t have the good fortune of Anthony Porter, who came within 48 hours of execution but who ultimately was exonerated when a group of Northwestern University journalism students and a private investigator found the real killer and, against all odds, persuaded him to confess on videotape.

The majority of exonerations in recent years have come about because of advances in technology and DNA testing, but for many convicts, including Davis, there are no tools to prove innocence because there is no forensic evidence to test. These unjustly imprisoned inmates will never gain their freedom.

Davis’ case illustrates many of the inadequacies of our criminal justice system. His public defender had no experience in death penalty cases. Prosecutors used their peremptory challenges to exclude every potential black juror, a practice that has since been outlawed by the U.S. Supreme Court. And the appellate courts were more concerned with procedure than with discovering the truth.

I am not a death penalty activist, and people can disagree about whether Davis’ actions—crimes he really committed, not what the police fabricated against him—ultimately warranted a death sentence.

To be sure, Davis took part in crimes where innocent people got killed, but he was never the one who did the killing. He openly acknowledged this in the soft-spoken manner that characterized the 36-year-old I knew—the man who learned to read in prison and became an ordained minister, not the rotten 20-year-old he was when convicted.

In the 5 months I spent on his case, Davis never shied away from talking about how much he regretted his bad deeds, including crimes the police never knew he had committed. But he was steadfast in denying any role in the murder that led to his execution.

In the beginning, I spent a lot of time trying to catch Davis in a lie—about anything—but I was never able to do it. Over time, I slowly and grudgingly came to believe his story.

To be honest, I didn’t want to believe him; his guilt certainly would have made it easier on me in the days leading to his execution, when it became clear there was nothing more I could do to save his life.

It would have made it easier in the hours before midnight, when I had to say goodbye to Davis in his cell at Stateville prison, my client comforting me more than the other way around.

So frequently, and certainly on the anniversary of his death, I pause to remember that the State of Illinois executed Girvies Davis for a crime I am sure he didn’t commit, and that I was powerless to prevent it.

(Chicago Tribune, May 22, 2006) (picture of Davis, IL Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty). See Innocence and New Voices.