SUPREME COURT INTERVENES IN TROY DAVIS CASE…. A rare and welcome move by the high court majority.
The Supreme Court on Monday took the rare step of ordering a federal judge to consider the innocence claims of condemned Georgia prisoner Troy Anthony Davis, who has mounted a global campaign to declare he was wrongfully convicted of murder and barred by federal law from presenting the evidence that would prove it.
The court interrupted its summer recess to order a new hearing to determine “whether evidence that could not have been obtained at the time of trial clearly establishes” Davis’s innocence.
If you haven’t followed the case, here’s the story: 20 years ago, a late-night scuffle broke out in a Burger King parking lot in Savannah. When Mark MacPhail, an off-duty police officer, tried to intervene, someone pulled a gun and killed the officer. Soon after, Sylvester “Red” Coles, came to the police with a lawyer, accusing Troy Davis of the shooting.
Witnesses say it was Coles, not Davis, who killed MacPhail, but once the man-hunt began for Davis, law enforcement officials wanted to believe he was the man responsible for the slaying, and pressured witnesses accordingly. At this point, most of the witnesses who testified at trial have signed statements contradicting their identification of the gunman. Other witnesses who fingered Davis have said they made their stories up, facing police threats.
What we’re left with is a case in which a man was sentenced to death despite no physical evidence, based on the word of witnesses who have since recanted or contradicted their testimony.
What about the witnesses who say Cole shot MacPhail? They’re anxious to say so, but their testimony was blocked by federal courts, citing a provision in the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act. Yesterday, in a 6-2 ruling, the Supreme Court took the highly unusual step of ordering the lower court to hear the new evidence.
In his dissent, Justice Antonin Scalia argued, “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.” Justice Clarence Thomas joined Scalia in the court minority.
Justice John Paul Stevens responded, “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,” Stevens wrote. “The dissent’s reasoning would allow such a petitioner to be put to death nonetheless. The court correctly refuses to endorse such reasoning.”
As for whether Scalia’s argument is as crazy as it seems — did he really say there’s nothing unconstitutional about the state executing innocent Americans? — publius ponders the possibilities.