Girvies Davis, a functionally illiterate 20 year old whose social history was filled with terms like "retarded" and "slow" was executed by the State of Illinois in May 1995 for the murder of Charles Biebel, a crime that many, including me, believe was based on a false confession . Five months before he was executed, David Schwartz, then a recent graduate of law school working for a Chicago law firm, was assigned to Davis's case. Schwartz mounted a very persuasive campaign to try to save Davis's life. It was one of the first such campaigns to rely on internet technology to spread news about Davies case.
Davis was a victim of bad timing. His date with death came in 1995, several years before Professors Richard Ofshe and Richard Leo published their seminal work on false confessions, before Barry Scheck, Peter Neufeld, and Jim Dwyer, published "Actual Innocence," the first full portrait of the role that DNA evidence was playing in exposing wrongful convictions, three years before the landmrk conference at Northwestern Law School gathered together the largest ever assembly of exonerated death row inmates, and seven years before the United States Supreme Court decided Atkins v. Va., outlawing executions of the mentally retarded. Nevertheless, Schwartz raised enough questions about Girvies Davis' guilt that Governor Jim Edgar should have halted the execution.
Davis was arrested on August 30, 1979, after holding up an auto supply store in East St. Louis, Ill. While in custody, he confessed to more than a dozen crimes -- robberies, attempted murders and murders -- including the Biebel murder. Police claimed that many of these confessions were initiated by the illiterate Davis who supposedly wrote a jail guard a note saying he wanted to confess. Davis told a far more harrowing story of why he confessed. He was taken from his cell for a midnite ride, driven to an out of the way place where authorities removed his leg irons and handcuffs and given a choice: either sign the confessions or start running in which case we will shoot you for trying to escape.
Although Davis did admit his involvement in two auto parts store robberies, police proved that he had nothing to do with at least three other such robberies to which he had confessed. They arrested and convicted two other men of these crimes. Altogether, police disproved more than a half dozen of Davis's confessions.
On May 17, 1995, Davis was executed. Five years later, a new Governor, George Ryan declared a moratorium on the death penalty, after Illinois's exonerations from death row grew to equal and then surpass its executions since the death penalty had been reinstated. Still convinced the capital system was broken and frustrated by the legislature's refusal to fix it, Governor Ryan later commuted the death sentences of all on Illinois' death row before leaving office in 2004. Every year on the anniversary of Davis's death, David Schwartz remembers his former client and friend. He remains haunted by Davis's execution and by his failure to be able to stop it. His commentary in yesterday's Tribune appears below:
If John Spirko is executed by the state of Ohio, it will demonstrate that false confessors who do not have DNA evidence to prove their innocence, likely will fare no better today than those who were executed before the DNA revolution rocked the criminal justice system with full force and fury. Only this time, it will be Spirko's lawyers and the state of Ohio that will forever be haunted by the spectre of executing an innocent man.