A man held on Georgia's death row for two decades will have his case heard by a federal judge today. Troy Davis, who is black, was convicted of killing a white police officer in 1989.
Since then, seven of nine witnesses have recanted their testimonies, claiming that police coerced their cooperation in the hopes of securing a quick conviction. Four of those witnesses testified in court today that their original testimony was not true and that authorities pressured them to name Davis as the shooter.
The Supreme Court took the extraordinary step of ordering the lower court to hold the hearing after Davis had exhausted all of his appeals. Normally, the court hears cases that are appeals of lower court decisions. Davis' case was the first time in 50 years that the court considered a case filed directly to the Supreme Court's docket.
Despite the extraordinary move of the nation's highest court, Davis has a tough road ahead because he has to go beyond proving that the case against him was flawed. Instead, he has to establish his innocence in the rarely granted hearing. The Atlanta Journal Constitution says:
Still to be decided is what standard U.S. District Judge William T. Moore Jr., who will preside over the hearing, will use to evaluate Davis' new innocence claims. Must Davis prove by clear and convincing evidence that he is innocent so the judge is convinced he did not commit the crime, asked Georgia State University law professor Anne Emanuel. Or does Davis have to show that no reasonable person, after looking at the newly discovered evidence, could find him guilty beyond a reasonable doubt?
"Certainly, Mr. Davis and his attorneys have a very difficult burden ahead of them," said Howard Bashman, a Philadelphia attorney who operates a Web site devoted entirely to appellate litigation. "They have to show far more than there are serious doubts over the validity of the conviction. They have to show that the new evidence clearly establishes Mr. Davis' innocence." Until the U.S. Supreme Court stepped in, Davis' attempts to get his new evidence presented in court had been repeatedly stymied by the federal Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act, legislation enacted in 1996 to streamline appeals of capital sentences.
Davis' conviction was based solely on the testimony of witnesses, including a man who some claim they later heard confess to the shooting. That man testified against Davis and has not recanted his testimony. The other man who did not recant his testimony originally told police he could only see the clothing of the shooter.
Two other witnesses testified in court that they lied about Davis being the shooter for various reasons. One man said he was angry at Davis over a jailhouse feud that occurred while Davis was awaiting trial.
"I made up a lie saying that he told me he shot a police officer," Kevin McQueen said. "He never confessed to shooting anybody."
Another of Davis' neighbors said police pressed him into naming Davis as the shooter.
"I was so scared that I told them anything that they wanted to hear," Jeffrey Sapp said. "They kept saying, 'Just say Troy told you.'"
This case shows why the use of the death penalty in our country needs to be strongly reconsidered. The Innocence Project, which has helped to free over 250 wrongly convicted men using DNA evidence, identifies false witness identification, the use of jailhouse snitches and police and government misconduct as three of the major factors that lead to false convictions.
Of course, the majority of the men who are wrongly convicted are African-American or minorities.
In light of the issues facing those sentenced to the death penalty, the law that streamlines the appeals in death penalty cases seems even more cruel. Lawmakers should repeal the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act. The Innocence Project is also calling for the U.S. Senate to create a commission to examine and help repair the problems of the criminal justice system. That should be as much of a priority as energy reform or the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Davis is lucky that he has not already been put to death for a crime that he may not have committed. He was scheduled for execution three times. It's frightening to think about how many other people were executed who were innocent of the crimes with which they were charged but never had the opportunity to prove it.
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