JACKSON, Ga. -- Troy Davis, convicted of murdering an off-duty Savannah police officer more than 20 years ago, held fast to his claims of innocence even as he was finally executed by lethal injection on Wednesday night.
Strapped to a gurney and minutes from death, Davis stated that he had not carried a gun the night of the murder and did not shoot the officer, Mark MacPhail, in a fast food restaurant parking lot on an August night in 1989.
Speaking directly to MacPhail's brother and son, who witnessed the execution, Davis beseeched them to continue to examine the events that night. "All I can ask is that you look deep into this case so you can really find the truth," he said.
Davis then addressed prison officials preparing to inject him with a lethal mix of chemicals. "May God have mercy on your souls," he said.
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The first injection began at 10:54 p.m. and Davis was declared dead at 11:08 p.m. Afterward, Davis' attorneys and legal advocates quickly decried the execution as a terrible miscarriage of justice.
"I had the unfortunate opportunity tonight to witness a tragedy, to witness Georgia execute an innocent man," Jason Ewart, one of Davis' attorneys, said outside the prison. "The innocent have no enemy but time, and Troy's time slipped away tonight."
Meanwhile, family members of the murdered officer expressed relief that the execution was over, according to the Associated Press.
News of the execution quieted hundreds of protesters who had lined the highway across from the entrance to the prison for hours, chanting and singing as they faced a small army of baton-wielding prison guards in full riot gear, sheriff's deputies and state police. The crowd of protesters was quickly dispersed by police after Davis' death was announced.
Local observers called the protests the largest at the state's death row in many years. "I've never seen anything like this," said Don Earnhart, manager of a Jackson, Ga., radio station, who said he has covered executions for several decades. Protests were also seen at the state capital, Atlanta, in Washington, D.C. and at the U.S. embassy in London.
The execution was delayed for more than four hours by a last-minute petition to the U.S. Supreme Court by Davis' legal team. The justices denied the petition without comment or dissent.
Davis' death ends an extraordinary legal saga that included three last-minute stays of execution and dozens of hearings before state and federal appellate courts. Over two decades, his legal team argued that a lack of physical evidence linking Davis to the crime and recantations by a number of critical eyewitnesses who originally implicated him in the shooting were reason enough for the Georgia courts to grant him a new trial.
But state and federal courts, including the U.S. Supreme Court, repeatedly ruled against his appeals for a new trial and he was ultimately executed on the basis of the original jury verdict.
On Tuesday, the Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles, which has sole authority to commute a death sentence in the state, rejected Davis' plea for clemency, essentially sealing his fate. MacPhail's family members had repeatedly stated their certainty that Davis was guilty of the crime and consistently fought his efforts to obtain clemency.
Earlier this week, the state's pardons board was bombarded by hundreds of thousands of petitions to spare Davis' life, including ones from William S. Sessions, a former FBI director, and Bob Barr, a four-term Republican congressman from Georgia and death penalty supporter. Many of those opposed to the execution noted the lack of physical evidence tying Davis to the crime and the recantation of eyewitness, many of whom told attorneys for Davis that they had been pressured by police to testify that Davis was the shooter.
"Imposing an irreversible sentence of death on the skimpiest of evidence will not serve the interest of justice," Barr wrote in an editorial on the case last Wednesday.
On Wednesday morning, Davis offered to submit to a lie detector test, but the request was denied by prison officials.
As the hours until the execution dwindled, calls for clemency continued from around the nation and the world, including from a group of former death row wardens, who wrote to Georgia authorities calling on them to halt the death sentence due to doubts about Davis' guilt. Among the group was the former warden in charge of the Georgia death chamber.
"While most of the prisoners whose executions we participated in accepted responsibility for the crimes for which they were punished, some of us have also executed prisoners who maintained their innocence until the end," the wardens wrote. "It is those cases that are most haunting to an executioner."
Meanwhile, the family of the murdered policeman, Mark MacPhail, and the case's original prosecutor have argued strenuously for Davis' execution, and have asserted that there is no doubt that he is guilty of the murder.
Joan MacPhail-Harris, the officer's widow, said this week that Davis "has had ample time to prove his innocence" and failed to do so, according to the Associated Press. She, along with MacPhail's children, urged the pardon's board to deny Davis' petition for clemency this week.
An extraordinary hearing last year ordered by the U.S. Supreme Court gave Davis the rare opportunity to present evidence of his innocence as part of a petition for a new trial. The judge overseeing the hearing ruled that the state's case against Davis "may not be ironclad" and agreed that Davis had raised some doubts about his conviction. However, the judge concluded that Davis had not provided the court with compelling evidence of his innocence and denied his request for a retrial.
Supporters of Davis said the unwillingness of the U.S. justice system to reconsider his death sentence in light of the witness recantations and other new evidence exposed fundamental problems in the justice system.
"Troy Davis has become an incredible symbol of everything that is broken, everything that is wrong" with the capital punishment in the U.S., said Larry Cox, executive director of Amnesty International's U.S. branch, in an interview on the prison grounds.
Jason Ewart, Davis attorney, said he hoped Davis death would lead to systematic reform.
"This case struck a chord in the world, and as a result the legacy of Troy Davis doesn't die tonight," Ewart said, standing beside Davis' family members outside Georgia's death row.
"Our sadness, the sadness of his friends and his family, is tempered by the hope that Troy's death will lead to fundamental legal reforms," he said, "so we will never again witness, with inevitable regret, the execution of an innocent man as we did here tonight."
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story misidentified the capital of Georgia. It is Atlanta, not Athens.