NBC's 'Today' Allows Sharpton to Slam GOP 'Cheering' Death Penalty

Update: Full transcript added below.

Discussing the execution of convicted cop-killer Troy Davis on Thursday's NBC Today, co-host Matt Lauer asked left-wing activist and MSNBC host Al Sharpton if he was "surprised" by most Americans supporting the death penalty. Sharpton declared: "When I'm watching Republican debates and see people cheering...that 234 people were killed in Texas under Governor Perry, it doesn't surprise me." [Audio available here]

Sharpton went on to argue that the United States was guilty of violating human rights: "How do you think we look to the world when a man with this kind of doubt was executed by the state last night and we're lecturing them on human rights?"  

View video after the jump

Sharpton was of course referring to a moment in the September 7 MSNBC/Politico Republican debate in which Nightly News anchor Brian Williams asked Perry if he ever "lost sleep" over the number of executions in Texas.

Throughout the segment, Lauer teed up Sharpton with one softball question after another, starting with: "Did the state of Georgia execute an innocent man?" After Sharpton declared that to be the case, Lauer followed up by quoting a blog post the Reverend had written calling for a new trial.  Sharpton proclaimed: "If you have a man who's convicted, Matt, only on eyewitness testimony, there's no physical evidence, no DNA, how do you execute him when they recant their testimony?"

Turning to legal correspondent Savannah Guthrie, Lauer observed:

At first glance this looks like a one-sided situation. You've got seven witnesses recanting their testimony. Another person confessing to the crime. Three jurors saying they wouldn't convict today based on what they know, and no connection, DNA-wise, to Troy Davis, but you – this has gone through court after court after court. Even the Supreme Court. What did they see that we aren't seeing?

Guthrie pointed out that, "you cannot say that Troy Davis didn't get his day in court. You have 20 years of appeals, it went up to the Supreme Court on multiple occasions." She added: "The Supreme Court took the rare step of ordering a lower federal court to actually hold a hearing and hear some of these live witnesses who recanted their testimony. That court ultimately found those witnesses' changed testimony to be uncompelling and so they rejected the defense. So there is a little more here than meets the eye."

Rather than use such facts to challenge Sharpton on the issue, Lauer simply wondered: "The debate now goes beyond Troy Davis because it's too late for Troy Davis. Where should the larger debate go?"  

Here is a full transcript of Today's 7 a.m. ET coverage of the Troy Davis execution on September 22: 

7:00AM ET TEASE:

ANN CURRY: Executed. A Georgia man put to death for the killing of a police officer after the Supreme Court rejected an 11th hour appeal. With seven witnesses recanting their testimony, another man confessing to the crime, and no DNA evidence, did Troy Davis die for a murder he did not commit?

7:01AM ET TEASE:

MATT LAUER: After hours of delays and a lot of last-minute legal wrangling, Troy Davis was pronounced dead at 11:08 Eastern Time last night. To the very end he proclaimed his innocence, telling the victim's family members who were witnessing the execution right from the front row, quote, 'I am not the one who personally killed your son, your father, your brother.'

CURRY: That's right. Davis was convicted in the 1989 killing of officer Mark MacPhail. His case has drawn worldwide attention and last night hundreds showed up outside the prison to protest. Among those who are calling this an injustice is the Reverend Al Sharpton, who actually met with Troy Davis on death row. We're going to be talking to him straight ahead.     

7:02AM ET SEGMENT:

LAUER: We want to begin this morning with the execution of Troy Davis. NBC's Thanh Troung is in Jackson, Georgia, outside the prison where that execution took place. Thanh, Good morning.

THANH TROUNG: Matt, just before the lethal injection Troy Davis told his supporters, "Keep up the fight." And he had a message for his executioners, "May God have mercy on your souls."

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: It was just a somber, somber event.

TROUNG: Witnesses to the execution said Troy Davis maintained his innocence up until the very end.

RHONDA COOK [ATLANTA JOURNAL CONSTITUTION]: He said the incident that night was not my fault. I did not have a gun.

TROUNG: The witnesses said Davis addressed the family members of Mark MacPhail, the police officer Davis was convicted of killing.

JON LEWIS [WSB RADIO]: He wanted to talk to the MacPhail family and said that, "Despite the situation you're in," he was not the one who did it. He said that he did not take "their son, father, brother." He said to them to dig deeper into this case to find out the truth.

TROUNG: The MacPhail family members sat in the front row and stared at Davis until the moment of his death, 11:08 p.m. Davis's attorney also witnessed the execution.

THOMAS RUFFIN JR. [TROY DAVIS ATTORNEY]: What I saw tonight, what Jason saw tonight, what the MacPhail family saw tonight, and what your colleagues, the journalists who spoke with you earlier, saw tonight was indeed a legal lynching. And one thing I want to get clear is just because it was legal doesn't mean it was right.

TROUNG: Davis's family, too distraught to speak to the media, met with an Amnesty International spokesperson afterward.

LAURA MOYE: They thanked people for coming and supporting them. They thanked people for standing by them and for the million people who sent their signatures in to say to the state, "Do not do this. Do not carry out this execution."

TROUNG: Davis was convicted in the 1989 murder of officer MacPhail. Witnesses testified Davis shot MacPhail as he helped a homeless man. But seven of the nine witnesses later recanted their testimony, several claiming police coercion. No DNA evidence linked him to the crime. Amid a heavy police presence, hundreds of demonstrators gathered outside the prison in a case that had drawn international attention. The execution was delayed several hours Wednesday night before the Supreme Court refused to stay the execution.

DAWN ARTHAN: It never occurred to me that the government was going to go ahead and murder this man. It didn't. And so I'm angry and I'm sad.

TROUNG: Through numerous appeals and three halted executions, prosecutors and officer MacPhail's family never wavered this week from their belief, Davis deserved death.

ANNELIESE MACPHAIL: It's over. It sounds terrible, but I can finally close this book and hopefully get some peace.

TROUNG: And MacPhail's widow told the Associated Press, quote, "There was nothing to rejoice. I will grieve for the Davis family because now they're going to understand our pain in our heart. My prayers go out to them." The final chapter in a 22-year-long saga, Matt.

LAUER: Thanh Troung in Georgia for us this morning. Thanh, thank you very much. Reverend Al Sharpton is just back from Georgia, where he led a protest against the execution. He's also the head of the National Action Network and host of "Politics Nation" on MSNBC. Savannah Guthrie is our legal correspondent. Good morning to both of you.

AL SHARPTON: Good morning.

LAUER: Did the state of Georgia execute an innocent man?

AL SHARPTON: I believe that they did, but even beyond my belief, they clearly executed a man that had established much, much reasonable doubt. And I think that that is the reason you saw a wide array of people, even pro-death penalty advocates like William Sessions, the former FBI director, Bob Barr, the former Republican congressman, joining people like me saying this should not happen.

LAUER: Yeah, so your opinion – your personal opinion is he may have been innocent but what you wrote in the blog was, "I, like numerous other voices out there, am not asking you to judge whether Davis is innocent or guilty. We're instead advocating for an end to his execution and an opportunity to finally receive a just trial where evidence can be introduced and witnesses will not be coerced or pressured into lying."

SHARPTON: That's exactly right. Because the position is we've got to deal with the law. Emotions on both sides should not drive the law. If you have a man who's convicted, Matt, only on eyewitness testimony, there's no physical evidence, no DNA, how do you execute him when they recant their testimony?

LAUER: But you say you have to go with the law. Savannah, let me bring you in here because Reverend Sharpton makes a point. At first glance this looks like a one-sided situation. You've got seven witnesses recanting their testimony. Another person confessing to the crime. Three jurors saying they wouldn't convict today based on what they know, and no connection, DNA-wise, to Troy Davis, but you – this has gone through court after court after court.

SAVANNAH GUTHRIE: Yes.

LAUER: Even the Supreme Court. What did they see that we aren't seeing?

GUTHRIE: Right. Clearly, there is doubt. No question when you have a case that hangs on eyewitness testimony and you've got witnesses recanting, you want to take a look at that evidence. The fact of the matter is, whatever you say about this case, you cannot say that Troy Davis didn't get his day in court. You have 20 years of appeals, it went up to the Supreme Court on multiple occasions. The Supreme Court took the rare step of ordering a lower federal court to actually hold a hearing and hear some of these live witnesses who recanted their testimony. That court ultimately found those witnesses' changed testimony to be uncompelling and so they rejected the defense. So there is a little more here than meets the eye.

LAUER: And this sounds cold and calculated. The debate now goes beyond Troy Davis because it's too late for Troy Davis.

SHARPTON: Well, that's true.

LAUER: Where should the larger debate go?

SHARPTON: The larger debate – we will be in Washington tomorrow – the larger debate is there ought to be a law that you cannot have a capital case, a case that would lead to execution, only on eyewitness testimony. We should at least have the bar, whether you're for the death penalty or not, and I'm not, but even if you're for the death penalty there ought to be a bar that there has to be more than eyewitness accounts. I'm sure you will agree that there's numerous studies where eyewitness accounts are flawed. You can't take people's lives on that.

LAUER: And even though 100% certainty is almost impossible to achieve unless a defendant stands up and says, 'I did it, I deserve to die,' 63% of people in this country favor the death penalty. Does that number surprise either of you?

SHARPTON: Well, when I'm watching Republican debates and see people cheering, when we hear them mention that 234 people were killed in Texas under Governor Perry, it doesn't surprise me. It's chilling. But imagine, Matt, we're here back in New York, here in New York, she's here in New York, the U.N. here, world leaders. How do you think we look to the world when a man with this kind of doubt was executed by the state tonight – last night and we're lecturing them on human rights?

GUTHRIE: You know, the public is still broadly supportive of the death penalty but I think there has been a change among policy makers, certainly among judges having more and more misgivings about the death penalty. It's not swift or certain. There's significant doubt with a lot of these cases, especially with all the DNA evidence and you're hearing about cases where people are wrongly convicted. And we do have statutes now in most states that provide for life without the possibility of parole and the primary justification for the death penalty is so that somebody can't get out and do it again. And when you have those statutes on the books that provide for somebody to be in prison for the rest of his or her life then perhaps the justifications for the death penalty are no longer as forceful as they once were.
                    
LAUER: This debate has been going on for a long time, it will continue to go on. Reverend Al Sharpton, thank you very much.

SHARPTON: Thank you.

LAUER: Savannah, thank you as well. I appreciate it. 

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Kyle Drennen
Kyle Drennen
Kyle Drennen is a News Analyst for MRC