Tuesday, August 18, 2009

US Supreme Court Says Federal Bench Should Hear New Testimony in Case of Death Row Inmate Troy Davis

High court: Condemned Ga. man should get hearing

By Joan Biskupic, USA TODAY

WASHINGTON — In an exceptional move Monday, the Supreme Court ordered a U.S. court in Georgia to hear new testimony in the case of Troy Davis, who was sentenced to die for killing a police officer and whose appeal has drawn international attention.

The justices said a lower-court judge should determine whether fresh evidence "clearly establishes" Davis' innocence. Since a jury convicted him 18 years ago, seven of the prosecution's key witnesses have recanted their testimony about what happened in a Savannah, Ga., parking lot the night officer Mark Allen MacPhail was shot.

The high court rarely intervenes in death penalty appeals at late stages and almost never when a condemned inmate is filing the kind of special petition that Davis did. Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas said in their dissent that it had been nearly 50 years since the court accepted such a petition.

Davis' case comes amid growing questions about the possibility of innocent convicts on death row and courts' treatment of evidence that emerges after a conviction.

His claim of innocence had won earlier support from former president Jimmy Carter and Pope Benedict XVI, and his latest bid drew "friend of the court" briefs from the NAACP and former U.S. House member Bob Barr, a Republican from Georgia.

Execution dates had been set for Davis three times then postponed by U.S. courts or Georgia officials. In 2008, he was within two hours of execution when a temporary reprieve came.

Monday's order was not signed and did not include a recorded vote. Sonia Sotomayor, the newest justice, did not participate.

Three justices in the majority took issue with the assumption by Scalia and Thomas that Davis is guilty despite the new information from witnesses.

Justice John Paul Stevens, joined by Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer, noted that several key witnesses against Davis had recanted, and some people implicated the state's principal witness. The justices said no state or federal court has ever reviewed all the new evidence.

"The substantial risk of putting an innocent man to death" justifies a hearing, Stevens wrote.

Martina Correia, Davis' sister, said she was "elated" with the court action. "This tells me that there are people on the highest court … who believe more in fairness than in just following procedure," Correia said. "This is about getting to the truth."

Georgia Attorney General Thurbert Baker said he hoped the new hearing "will resolve the doubts about the verdict handed down" 18 years ago.

Anneliese MacPhail, the officer's mother, told the Associated Press she was "in shock" and worries the Supreme Court's action will cause further pain for a family seeking closure.

•Contributing: Kevin Johnson

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