Troy Davis: 'The Most Compelling Case of Innocence in Decades'

What do Jimmy Carter, William Sessions, Pope Benedict XVI, Bob Barr, Desmond Tutu, and TalkLeft all have in common? A belief that Troy Davis is innocent, and that his execution would be a perverse injustice. NAACP President Benjamin Jealous writes that Davis "represents the most compelling case of innocence in decades."

While Davis' chances of avoiding execution appear to be slim, he's been given a glimmer of hope by the Supreme Court's adjournment for the summer without deciding whether to review his claim that he's entitled to a hearing to demonstrate his innocence. [more ...]

Before new evidence of his innocence was discovered, Davis brought an unsuccessful direct appeal in Georgia's state courts and an unsuccessful habeas petition in federal court. Later, on the strength of the new evidence (including recantations by several trial witnesses and new testimony from three witnesses who heard another man confess to the crime), Davis tried to obtain a new trial from Georgia's state courts. The Georgia Supreme Court decided that Davis was not entitled to an evidentiary hearing to prove his actual innocence. Last year, the U.S. Supreme Court denied Davis' petition to review that decision.

As required by the noxious AEDPA, Davis asked the Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit for permission to file a second habeas petition alleging that the new evidence, unavailable at the time his first habeas petition was filed, established his actual innocence. The Eleventh Circuit stayed Davis' execution while it considered that request, but lifted the stay after deciding (pdf) by a 2-1 vote that Davis did not meet the AEDPA's strict requirements for commencing a second habeas proceeding -- requirements that, as a practical matter, are nearly impossible to satisfy. The dissenting judge objected that the "AEDPA cannot possibly be applied when to do so would offend the Constitution and the fundamental concept of justice that an innocent man should not be executed."

Davis asked the Supreme Court to review the Eleventh Circuit's decision. In a surprising but welcome turn of events, the Court recessed for the summer without acting on that request. The result: there is still hope, however slim, that a man who is widely believed to be innocent will escape the death penalty.

At some point after the Court resumes its work on the first Monday in October, it will decide whether to hear Davis' petition. While it should be self-evident that the right to due process -- the right to fundamental fairness -- protects an innocent inmate from execution, the Supreme Court has never decided whether there is a "constitutional right to be released upon proof of 'actual innocence'." Just a month ago, Chief Justice Roberts sidestepped that "open question" in a majority opinion holding that due process does not guarantee an inmate's access to DNA evidence in the state's custody for the purpose of establishing his actual innocence.

Roberts observed that the abstract right to be released upon proof of innocence raises difficult questions. Inmates would presumably be held to a "high standard" of proof, but if the bar is set so high that it can never be met, the right would be meaningless. Those questions need not be addressed in Davis' case, which (as the dissenting judge in the Eleventh Circuit recognized) poses simpler questions: whether executing Davis "in the face of a significant amount of proffered evidence that may establish his actual innocence, is unconscionable and unconstitutional," and whether Davis "may be lawfully executed when no court has ever conducted a hearing to assess the reliability of the score of affidavits that, if reliable, would satisfy the threshold showing for a truly persuasive demonstration of actual innocence, thus entitling Davis to habeas relief."

If the Supreme Court is unwilling to confront those questions, Davis will be put to death unless Chatham County's newly elected District Attorney, Larry Chisolm, can be persuaded to reopen the case. While that isn't something a prosecutor would ordinarily do, most prosecutors don't receive pleas for justice from Desmond Tutu and the Pope. Davis' hopes for a reprieve from death are dwindling, but they aren't lost.

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    Great post TChris (5.00 / 1) (#3)
    by AlkalineDave on Wed Jul 08, 2009 at 10:18:02 AM EST

    i wouldn't bet the rent money (none / 0) (#1)
    by cpinva on Wed Jul 08, 2009 at 07:52:47 AM EST
    on the roberts' court doing anything, i predict a 5-4 "fry him" decision. this is a really bad time to be innocent of the crime you were convicted of, roberts and his cohorts have made it very clear, in numerous decisions and denials of certiori, that everyone's guilty, evidence be damned.

    unless you're a big corporation, then they'll fall all over themselves to help you. davis should have started a company, he might have a shot at it then.

    You are being generous (none / 0) (#8)
    by Jen M on Wed Jul 08, 2009 at 06:40:26 PM EST
    I think they just don't care innocent people are being killed or left to rot, and know darn well that it is happening.

    Is there any prospect (none / 0) (#2)
    by Steve M on Wed Jul 08, 2009 at 09:15:38 AM EST
    for Congress taking action to scale back the more oppressive provisions of the AEDPA?  I know, I know, soft on crime and all that, just asking.

    this desire to kill (none / 0) (#4)
    by jeffinalabama on Wed Jul 08, 2009 at 11:14:05 AM EST
    based on trial outcome, irrespective of any follow-on testimony or evidence that comes forward... this is the problem with the judicial system. I have read prosecutors state that 'so and so is guilty,' even though evidence to exonerate them  is painfully obvious.

    I don't say this as a slam against prosecutors. I simply don't understand the distance a prosecutor wil go to justify a jury conviction.

    I worked ina police department, and we did know that some folks were guilty but it couldn't be proven, but we also knew that some folks, while they did commit heinous crimes, couldn't be convicted. When something came along that demonstrat4ed innocence, it meant back to the drawing board.

    I worry that powerful people shouting 'Guilty! S/he got a fair trial!' don't get that there's a deeper issue here. Convincing a jury that someone is guilty doesn't necessarily mean guilt.

    Well said jeff... (none / 0) (#5)
    by kdog on Wed Jul 08, 2009 at 01:38:46 PM EST
    its like the prosecutorial system is blinded by vengeance when the whole point of our system is for it not to be.  

    For the loved ones of a victim of a brutal crime I can understand the need for vengeance, but from prosecutors and judges I just can't....unless, as is often surmised, the criminal element and the law enforcement/prosecution element really ain't all that different...the Police and Thieves theory.  It's the good decent people up against both elements in the struggle for truth and justice.


    The Thin Blue Line (none / 0) (#6)
    by jondee on Wed Jul 08, 2009 at 01:53:26 PM EST
    For anyone who hasnt seen it, I heartily reccommend a viewing of the ground-breaking Errol Morris film to anyone intersted in exploring further the ways the prosecutorial-media-public system can derail itself and spin out of control to the detriment of innocent defendants, and ultimatly, all of us.