Georgia Department of Corrections/AP
Death-row inmate Troy Davis

Supreme Court Rejects Controversial Case of Troy Davis

October 14, 2008 04:00 PM
by Josh Katz
Today, the Supreme Court chose not to hear the case of Troy Davis, clearing the way for his death penalty despite recanted testimony.

No More Options for Troy Davis

The U.S. Supreme Court rejected Troy Davis' last appeal today, the Los Angeles Times reports, permitting Georgia to proceed with the death penalty. The justices left no explanation for their decision.

Davis’ conviction and his death sentence have generated a great deal of controversy. Nine witnesses testified to Davis’ guilt during his trial in Georgia. Since then, seven of them have recanted their testimony. Davis’ attorneys say that the real culprit was Coles, who was one of the witnesses who testified against Davis, according to the Associated Press.

"The Supreme Court's decision is truly shocking, given that significant evidence of Davis' innocence will never have a chance to be examined," said Larry Cox, executive director of Amnesty International USA. "Faulty eyewitness identification is the leading cause of wrongful convictions, and the hallmark of Davis' case."

According to the Los Angeles Times, the justices may have concluded that the prior guilty judgements from the state of Georgia were correct.

Georgia was scheduled to execute Troy Davis by lethal injection on Sept. 23, but the Supreme Court intervened and granted a stay of execution with less than two hours to spare.

Davis had been convicted for shooting and killing 27-year-old off-duty police officer Mark MacPhail in a clash in a Burger King parking lot in 1989. MacPhail allegedly approached Davis and Davis’s friend Sylvester “Red” Coles after the two got into a skirmish with a homeless man, the Associated Press reports.

The trial lacked physical evidence and no weapons had been discovered, CNN reports. The witnesses who retracted their statements said that “they were mistaken, they feared retribution from the man they say actually killed MacPhail or that police pressured them into fingering Davis,” according to CNN.

Former President Jimmy Carter, South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Pope Benedict XVI and Rev. Al Sharpton have all called on the state of Georgia to spare the life of Davis, and have called for a new trial. Celebrities including Susan Sarandon, Harry Belafonte and the Indigo Girls, Congressman John Lewis, D-Ga., and former U.S. lawmakers Bob Barr and Carolyn Moseley Braun have also stood in support of Davis. Amnesty International has coordinated rallies inside and outside of the United States in Davis’s defense, CNN reports.
But the prosecutors claim that the evidence still points to Davis’ culpability. Anneliese MacPhail, the mother of the fallen police officer, said, “Troy Davis was judged by his peers. All the courts have found him guilty. It was proven he was guilty. Please let us have some peace. Let Mark rest in peace. Let justice be done.”

The Georgia Supreme Court has turned down Davis’ insistence for a new trial twice, and rejected his appeal by a 6-1 vote to stay the execution before the U.S. Supreme Court intervened, according to the AP. Since 1973, the state of Georgia has executed 42 other inmates.

Opinion & Analysis: Davis’ fate

The Georgia Supreme Court had refused to grant Davis a stay, citing evidence from the trial that appeared to pinpoint Davis as the man who murdered MacPhail. According to the court, evidence from the trial indicated that MacPhail chased after Davis and Coles. Coles then allegedly stopped, and MacPhail continued to chase Davis. Davis then reportedly shot MacPhail, stood over the police officer “smiling and fired again.”

The state Supreme Court rejected the argument of Davis’ lawyers that the execution should be stayed because so many of the trial witnesses have recanted their testimony. According to the Court, such “Declarations made after the trial are entitled to much less regard than sworn testimony delivered at the trial,” because, among other reasons, memory is more likely to change over time. Davis’ lawyers argued that his situation was “extraordinary,” but the Court called that argument “unpersuasive.”

A number of op-ed pieces disagreed with the Georgia Supreme Court’s opinion. Cynthia Tucker of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution argues that this case is less about justice and more about the state of society: “If Troy Anthony Davis had occupied a higher rung on the social ladder, he probably would not have been convicted of murder in the August 1989 shooting death of a Savannah police officer.” She accuses the Savannah police of pressuring witnesses to give them the testimony they needed. Tucker also cites data indicating that “More than 75 percent of the people exonerated by DNA evidence had been falsely convicted by bad eyewitness testimony in their original trials.”

Adam Servwer of the American Prospect makes a similar argument, claiming in strong words that race has directly played into the Davis case. “This is the logical extension of holding ‘black people’ accountable for urban crime, rather than the individuals themselves. In this scheme of thought, as long as a black man pays for the crime—any one will do. This is, quite plainly, a lynching, of the decidedly more fatal low-tech variety.”

Radley Balko of Reason magazine does not know whether Davis is truly guilty, and he asserts the court cannot be sure either, because of the recent recantations. “It looks as if there’s at least enough doubt that we can’t say for sure,” says Balko. “And that ought to be more than enough doubt to hold off on the execution.”

Related Topics: Wrongful convictions

While investigating Illinois’s capital punishment practices in the late 1990s, journalism students at Northwestern University uncovered evidence indicating that one inmate, Anthony Porter, had been wrongly convicted. Porter was eventually cleared of all charges after spending 17 years on death row. Convinced that the “capital system is haunted by the demon of error,” as he put it in a Jan. 11, 2003, speech at Northwestern University, Ill. Gov. George Ryan vowed to “prevent another Anthony Porter.” That same month, Gov. Ryan commuted the death sentences of all 167 death-row prisoners in the state.

The Death Penalty Information Center provides a graph of causes for 86 cases in which prisoners on death row were wrongfully convicted. Eyewitness error accounted for 45 percent of the cases; false snitch testimony (“often given in exchange for a reduction in sentence”) was 10 percent; government misconduct was 17 percent; false confession was 8; junk science (“mishandled evidence or use of unqualified ‘experts’”) was 9 percent. The remaining 29 percent were due to “hearsay, questionable circumstantial evidence, etc.”

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