A chance to prove his innocence

August 19, 2009

Elizabeth Schulte reports on a breakthrough legal victory for Georgia death row inmate Troy Davis.

IN AN unprecedented legal victory for a death row inmate, the Supreme Court on August 17 ordered a federal court in Georgia to hear evidence of innocence in the case of Troy Davis.

This is the first time in 50 years, pointed out dissenting Justice Antonin Scalia, that that the Supreme Court has stepped in to order a federal court to hold a hearing in a state case.

Troy Davis' struggle for justice has been the focus of tireless organizing on the part of his family, friends and growing numbers of supporters around the world. The campaign for his freedom has won the support of several anti-death penalty groups, such as Amnesty International and the Campaign to End the Death Penalty, as well as the ACLU of Georgia and the NAACP and well-known individuals such as former President Jimmy Carter and Nobel Peace Prize-winner Desmond Tutu.

Now, after being denied the opportunity to prove his innocence for more than a decade, Davis will finally have his day in court.

It's been almost 20 years since Davis was convicted for the 1989 killing of off-duty police officer Mark MacPhail in Savannah, Ga. Since then, seven of the nine original witnesses who testified against Davis have recanted their statements, with several saying that the police coerced them into fingering Davis. Some of these witnesses have named another man--prosecutors' star witness--as responsible for the shooting. In addition, 27 former prosecutors and judges filed a brief supporting Davis.

As many as 1,000 people gathered in early September for a march calling for justice for Troy
As many as 1,000 people gathered in early September for a march calling for justice for Troy

Yet, in April, a three-judge panel of the federal appeals court in Atlanta refused to allow Davis to file a habeas corpus petition. The justices invoked the 1996 Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act, which put strict limits on death penalty appeals and made it impossible to raise new evidence and other developments in a prisoner's defense.

Davis has come within hours of being executed--three times in the last two years.

The Supreme Court justices' short, paragraph-long order transfers Davis' habeas corpus petition to the U.S. District Court in Georgia and instructs the court to "receive testimony and make findings of fact as to whether evidence that could not have been obtained at the time of trial clearly establishes petitioner's innocence."

"The substantial risk of putting an innocent man to death clearly provides an adequate justification for holding an evidentiary hearing," said Justice John Paul Stevens, writing for the Court. Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer concurred.

THE FACT that this week's Supreme Court decision--to allow evidence of innocence for a man who is condemned to die to see the light of day--is viewed as unusual is an outrage in itself. In a sane justice system, any question of innocence, at any time, would surely be heard and taken into account--especially if a person is going to be executed.

Outrageously, Scalia, joined by fellow conservative Clarence Thomas, had this to say in his dissent:

This Court has never held that the Constitution forbids the execution of a convicted defendant who has had a full and fair trial but is later able to convince a habeas court that he is "actually" innocent...

Today, without explanation and without any meaningful guidance, this Court sends the District Court for the Southern District of Georgia on a fool's errand.

In other words, the Supreme Court has never dared to question a lower court's decision and stopped the execution of an innocent person. Well, maybe it's time it started.

Stevens, along with Ginsburg and Breyer, wrote in response to Scalia's screed:

Without briefing or argument, he concludes that Congress chose to foreclose relief and that the Constitution permits this. But imagine a petitioner in Davis's situation who possesses new evidence conclusively and definitively proving, beyond any scintilla of doubt, that he is an innocent man. The dissent's reasoning would allow such a petitioner to be put to death nonetheless. The Court correctly refuses to endorse such reasoning.

The Court's decision should also shed necessary light on the cynical way that the U.S. justice system treats questions of life and death. Death rows around the country are filled with prisoners like Troy Davis who may never have the chance to fight for their freedom. The wheels of justice run slowly toward freedom, but all too quickly toward the death house.

Signed into law in 1996 by Democratic President Bill Clinton, the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act was described as a reform to end the supposedly "interminable, frivolous appeals process," in the words of right-wing Republican House Leader Newt Gingrich. The legislation reduced new trials for people convicted of a crime and sped up their sentences by restricting a federal court's ability to judge whether a state court had correctly interpreted the U.S. Constitution.

"The bottom line," Dale Baich, an assistant federal public defender in Arizona told Time magazine in 2007, "is that the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act is very harsh and unforgiving."

Hopefully this court decision will serve as an example for other cases in which prisoners are struggling to have their cases re-examined. "This is a ray of hope for those inmates who might feel like their petitions are procedurally blocked," Laurie Levenson, a professor at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles, told the Los Angeles Times. "If they can show they are actually innocent, they may have a chance."

Furthermore, if following the letter of the law means that innocent people are condemned to die without their evidence ever being heard, then there is something fundamentally wrong with the law. A justice system that acts so capriciously should not have the power over life and death.

Activism--including an international day of action in May--were invaluable to bringing Troy's case to international attention, and likely the attention of the Supreme Court as well. Continued activism will make sure that Troy Davis's fight for freedom gets the attention it deserves, and pressures the Georgia court to do the right thing.

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