Where is the Troy Davis case now?

“..unless this Court notes probable jurisdiction and corrects the decision below, Georgia will execute a demonstrably innocent person.” – amicus brief from the Innocence Project

Troy Davis‘ legal team is appealing the federal district court ruling that Davis did not meet the court’s self-described “extraordinarily high” standard to prove his innocence following the two-day evidentiary hearing that took place in Savannah last June. Davis’ lawyers submitted an appeal and a petition to the U.S. Supreme Court on January 23.  The State of Georgia responded on February 24 and the Davis team was given an opportunity to file a response to the state by March 6.

The U.S. Supreme Court now has all of the legal documents from Davis and the State needed to determine how it will handle the case. It can respond any time now and, as with other cases filed before the court, an exact timeline is not known. The Supreme Court could accept the district court’s ruling outright and deny Davis’ appeal, clearing the path for Georgia to set an execution date. It could punt the case to the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals. Or it could consider the appeal either this term, which already has a rather full docket, or put it on the docket for next term (following the summer recess).


When in Doubt

When is it OK for the state to put a prisoner to death?  We at Amnesty International of course say “Never”.  (And two-thirds of the world’s nations agree with us.)  At the other end of the spectrum, US Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia says the state should be free to kill someone who has been convicted and sentenced to death in a “full and fair trial”, even if he can later show he is innocent.

The judge who presided over Troy Davis’ hearing in Savannah, GA, last month is likely to come down somewhere in the middle.  But where?  Amnesty International has just released a report that discusses Davis’ hearing and assesses what guidance there is internationally on this question. It turns out the world has a pretty common-sense suggestion for us.  If there is doubt about someone’s guilt, there should be no execution.

Of course the language of the Safeguards Guaranteeing Protection of the Rights of Those Facing the Death Penalty, adopted by the United Nations Economic and Social Council in 1984 and endorsed by the UN General Assembly, is a little wordier than that, but not much:

Capital punishment may be imposed only when the guilt of the person charged is based upon clear and convincing evidence leaving no room for an alternative explanation of the facts.

The Troy Davis case is buried in doubts.  Doubts from the witnesses whose recantations were are the heart of last month’s hearing, doubts from jurors (see pages 16-17), doubts from a former Georgia Supreme Court Justice who originally upheld his conviction, and even – with over 130 exonerations from death row since the 1970s – doubts about the reliability of the criminal justice system itself.

International opinion is slowly moving towards a consensus that all executions are an affront to human rights and human dignity, and an unacceptable abuse of power by the state.  Not everyone agrees with that yet, but for now can’t we at least agree that no one should be put to death when there is so much doubt?

Troy Davis: What Will Happen Next?

On Wednesday, lawyers for Troy Davis and the Georgia Attorney General filed briefs in response to a few questions posed by Judge William T. Moore, Jr. at the end of Davis’ June 23-24 evidentiary hearing.  A major issue the judge asked them to brief was how to interpret the “clearly establishes innocence” standard set by the U.S. Supreme Court when it ordered the hearing.

At the end of the hearing the judge made it clear that he wanted to move quickly.  We wouldn’t be surprised if he issued his ruling this month.  In his ruling, he will decide whether Troy Davis did or did not “clearly establish” his innocence, based on a legal determination of what “clearly establish” actually means.  Because Davis has already been convicted, there is no presumption of innocence and he will have to do more than just raise “reasonable doubts” about his guilt.  The burden is on Troy Davis to prove his innocence.  Therefore, we expect the “clearly establish innocence” standard to be quite high.

If the judge rules that Troy Davis did “clearly establish” his innocence, his sentence and possibly his conviction could be overturned.  The state could appeal the decision and the local DA could attempt to re-try him (though we can’t imagine what sort of case could be built at this point).  If Davis does win, it could significantly impact other cases, establishing that it is indeed unconstitutional to execute someone who is actually innocent, even if they had access to a “fair trial”.

If the judge rules that Troy Davis did not meet the high innocence standard, he would be at risk of a 4th execution date.  However, he would have an opportunity to appeal the decision and can ask for clemency from the state parole board.

The district court’s ruling will be incredibly momentous, either way.  Please stay tuned as Troy Davis is still not safe from execution.  While international human rights safeguards state that no one should face execution when there are any doubts as to the reliability of their conviction, this is not a legally established principle in the U.S. After listening to the witnesses testify in the hearing last month, it was clear to me that the doubts in Troy Davis’ case were deepened and certainly not resolved.  Please continue to educate people about the Troy Davis case and the broken system it represents.

Troy Davis Hearing: Day Two

By Laura Kagel, Georgia Death Penalty Abolition Coordinator for Amnesty International USA

The evidentiary hearing in the Troy Davis case ended on a somber note today, as everyone in the courtroom was aware that a matter of life and death was being decided.  The judge will be asking the lawyers on both sides to address points of law that are still unresolved, including what standard of proof applies–in other words, what does “clearly establish his innocence” mean in terms of the evidence brought forward? In his closing remarks, Judge Moore promised not to delay, but cautioned that a ruling would not be forthcoming in the next couple of weeks.

Innocence matters. (c) Scott Langley

When he thought lawyers on both sides were addressing settled issues, the judge showed his impatience, and he seemed sincerely interested in cutting to the core of the matter. Probably it will take some time for him to decide how to weigh the evidence he has heard, and in effect to decide what the core of the matter really is.

Today the defense team poked lots of holes in the prosecution’s theory linking the pool party shooting earlier in the day with the murder of Officer MacPhail, and showed that witnesses had varying descriptions of the shooters clothing in both crimes.

The State called numerous police department witnesses to underscore that police procedure had been followed in the investigation, but on cross-examination by Troy Davis’ legal team the police investigators and their supervisor were unable to produce a convincing explanation for not treating Sylvester Coles as a suspect and even including him in a reenactment of the crime which exposed him to information about the police investigation. Coles’ admission that he was at the scene of the crime, harassed the man who was hit in the head with a gun that night and had a gun on the night of the murder, would seem to raise red flags. These obvious deficiencies in the investigation could not really be wiped away by the assertion by police and the original prosecution team witnesses that procedure was followed.


Amnesty International USA Statement After Troy Davis Hearing

At the close of the Troy Davis evidentiary hearing, Anne Emanuel, legal analyst for Amnesty International USA, released the following statement:

“Given the evidence that emerged from the two-day hearing it is clear that the state’s case  against Troy Davis is thin and tainted.  Today’s hearing underscores the deepening doubt that has plagued this case.  It is difficult to imagine that a jury would convict Davis today after hearing four of the witnesses who convicted Davis 19 years ago testify in open court before a judge that they lied. One eyewitness testified for the first time that he saw his relative, the alternative suspect, Sylvester “Redd” Coles, shoot police officer Mark Allen MacPhail in 1989.”

Troy Davis Media Coverage

Here is a sampling of media coverage of the Troy Davis hearing in Savannah and events surrounding it.  Also, some great photos of scenes outside the Savannah Courthouse yesterday.

On Monday, June 21, former Georgia Supreme Court justice Norman Fletcher wrote in the Atlanta Journal Constitution about the importance of the decision of the US Supreme Court, led by retiring Justice Stevens, to grant the hearing.  That op-ed is entitled Stevens leaving legacy of judicial care.

The next day, June 22, NAACP President Benjamin Jealous wrote a special opinion piece for CNN called Death row inmate’s rare chance to prove his innocence.

Yesterday, the AJC published a preview of the hearing (Court to hear Troy Davis’ innocence claims in cop’s 1989 killing), as well as an analysis of the first day’s proceedings (Witnesses back off testimony against Troy Davis).

They also published Then and now: Witnesses change their stories – a comparison of the trial testimony that was used to convict Davis with the testimony heard on Tuesday. Local media and TV also covered the hearing throughout the day, and we expect more of the same today.

Justice for Everyone

It’s just after 5 am and I’m in line with the first 20 people waiting for a coveted seat in the courthouse for Troy Davis’ evidentiary hearing.  Reporters, supporters of Troy Davis, and supporters of Mark MacPhail, the victim in this tragic case, are all jumbled together.

Last night we gathered in the Davis family’s church for a vigil. Two death row exonerees spoke, including Juan Melendez.  He was on death row in Florida 17 years for a crime he didn’t commit. He shared a piece of that story and encouraged the Davis family and supporters to stay strong.  Larry Cox, AIUSA’s executive director gave an impassioned speech. He told the crowd that it was time for the characterization of this as a duel between Davis and MacPhail to end.

“How can you be for justice for one person and not be for justice for everyone?’” he asked.

Juan Melendez speaks in Savannah, June 22 - (c) Scott Langley

Larry Cox, AIUSA Executive Director, speaks in Savannah, June 22 - (c) Scott Langley

The Rev. Dr. Raphael Gamaliel Warnock of Ebenezer Baptist Church (Dr. King’s church in Atlanta) described the struggle for Troy as one for “the soul of this country.”  And he recalled the key moments when “God pressed the pause button” in Troy’s case, with one stay of execution after another.

It was a moving night. And I was once again humbled to be part of this growing movement and to experience the many miracles along the way.

We now await the first day of the hearing with much hope and anticipation. We don’t know how it will go, but we are grateful for the breakthrough that the U.S. Supreme Court created by ordering this hearing last year and we will remain watchful while the process unfolds.

Troy Davis Hearing: Landmark Opportunity for Justice

The hearing at the Savannah federal district court tomorrow is both historic and unprecedented.  Never before has the U.S. Supreme Court ordered a hearing to determine if it is unconstitutional to execute someone who is innocent. While this hearing is of the utmost importance to Troy Davis and the entire Savannah community, it also carries great legal significance.

Following his conviction in 1991, the case against Davis has unraveled, with seven of the nine witnesses recanting or contradicting their original testimony. After spending 19 years on death row and facing three execution dates, Davis has been given an opportunity to present evidence pointing to his innocence in a court of law.

This is a momentous opportunity that Amnesty International worked for and welcomes. But the burden of proof has been turned on its head. The court has set a very high bar: rather than ‘innocent until proven guilty,’ Davis must clearly prove he is innocent.

With 138 death row prisoners having been exonerated since 1973, it is more than a possibility that innocent people will be executed in the United States. It is inevitable in a broken system. The justice system should therefore be especially concerned with cases like Davis.’

Even as truth and justice are sought, we cannot forget the tragedy of a life lost. Mark Allen MacPhail was the innocent victim of a terrible murder. It is important to remember that the Savannah community lost a brave public servant, and acknowledge Officer MacPhail’s family during this difficult time. It is our sincere hope that this hearing will shed more truth on what happened the night of his murder and that justice will finally be served.

Larry Cox is the Executive Director of  Amnesty International USA.  He is currently in Savannah, GA to attend Troy Davis’ evidentiary hearing.

A Visit with Troy Davis

This Wednesday, an amazingly historic hearing will begin here in Savannah, Georgia where I will be all week.  The U.S. Supreme Court ordered the Savannah federal district court to hold an evidentiary hearing to give death row prisoner Troy Davis an opportunity to present his innocence claim.

Troy Davis' sister Martina Correia with Laura Moye outside Georgia Diagnostic and Classification Prison where death row is housed in Jackson, Georgia

I visited Troy along with his family yesterday and asked him how he was doing.  He seemed fairly calm, but not sure how to feel.  His life has been on a rollercoaster ride ever since he was implicated for the murder of a police officer twenty-one years ago.  Three years ago, when Amnesty International first started campaigning intensively on his case, an execution was scheduled then stayed.  This happened two more times in the next two years.  I’m not sure how I would feel either given the ups and downs of our justice system.  But I did detect hope, which he has held onto these nineteen years on death row.

This was my second visit to Troy.  It was a strange place to be on Father’s Day.  But once I walked through the numerous double-gated areas to find the Davis family gathered around him, it felt oddly normal to be in their midst on this family-oriented holiday.  Troy was playing jokes on his two-year old niece, a bundle of energy that the whole Davis clan watches over and dotes on so fondly.  He has clearly been a source of support for his teenage nephew whom he checks on regularly to ensure he’s doing well in school.  And it’s this remarkable family, so full of love and commitment to each other, and to their faith, that accounts for the life that remains in Troy’s eyes, despite all that he has faced.

The hearing is a serious opportunity for the doors of justice to open, but it won’t be easy.  He’ll have to prove that he is clearly innocent.  In a trial, the state would have the burden to prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.  And just what this legal standard of “clearly establishing innocence” means is a matter for the judge at the hearing to determine.

I hope to get a seat in the courtroom while the hearing is under way; though, there are likely to be throngs of people wanting to get in.  I sincerely hope that the hearing will shed more light on what happened the night of the tragic murder of off-duty police officer Mark MacPhail.  Both families have been waiting for justice and it’s time for the doubts to be addressed.

It is very sad that Troy’s family has had to think about the possibility of losing someone they love, someone who is clearly an active participant in their lives.  Being in the prison reminded me of how the death penalty creates more victims – the innocent families of the accused.  I have no idea what Father’s Day is like for the MacPhail’s and I wouldn’t pretend to know.  Justice has been a long time coming for them too.  And I really don’t know what to expect this week as the hearing draws closer, but I sincerely hope that learning more of the truth will lead to a more robust justice and help the healing of both families and of the larger community.