A federal judge in Georgia upheld the murder conviction of death row inmate Troy Davis last week, following a special evidentiary hearing that was ordered by the US Supreme Court to determine whether he was innocent.
The high court took the unusual step of directing the federal judge in charge of the case, US District Judge William Moore, to re-examine it after Davis and his lawyers presented evidence that the reliability of witness statements used by the prosecution was questionable.
Laura Moye, Death Penalty Abolition Campaign director at Amnesty International, called the Davis case, which has received international attention amid claims that an innocent individual may be executed, emblematic of a broken justice system.
“How could you have a system that would put human life on the line like that?” asks Moye about the strong possibility that Davis may be innocent.
Davis was convicted and sentenced to the death penalty for the 1989 shooting death of Savannah Police Officer Mark MacPhail. At issue in the trial is whether Davis was the individual who assaulted a homeless man outside a Burger King restaurant and then shot MacPhail, off duty at the time and working as a security guard, when he attempted to intervene.
The case against Davis was built primarily on eyewitness testimony, and since Davis’ conviction, most non-police witnesses have retracted their evidence, saying it was given under duress.
One witness said he lied at the trial when he testified that Davis admitted to the killing, another said he heard another man admit to the crime, and others raised questions about the color of Davis’ shirt on the night of the crime.
Of the two main witnesses testifying against Davis, one is the main alternative defendant.
Of the seven recantations, the judge hearing the case concluded that only one was credible. But, he said, it came from a witness who earlier testimony was “patently false,” and was, therefore, not relevant to the conviction.
Despite these inconsistencies in witness accounts, Davis’ conviction has been heard and upheld at every level of the state and federal court system.
According to Moye, “the leading cause for wrongful convictions is inaccurate and wrongful eyewitness identification.”
Amnesty International figures calculate that, since 1973, more than 130 death row inmates have been released after wrongful convictions.
For Moye, “the only way to prevent the execution of an innocent person is to not entrust our government to make a decision about life and death.” She advocates an end to the death penalty altogether, a goal the international declaration of human rights also calls for.
But for now, at least 16 deaths are scheduled for the next six months and, in California, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has borrowed $64 million to build a new death row.
In April 2009, the 11th Circuit Court ruled to deny Davis’ appeal to have the newest evidence heard by a jury, a ruling which prompted one of the judges, Rosemary Barkett, to say: “To executive Davis, in the face of a significant amount of proffered evidence that may establish his actual innocence, is unconscionable and unconstitutional.”
As Davis’ execution date approached, his lawyers called on the Supreme Court to reconsider the issue under a recent ruling, which allows inmates facing certain extraordinary circumstances to file an appeal even after the one-year statute of limitations deadline has expired.
Rather than hear the case, the Supreme Court transferred it to the federal judge, instructing him to “receive testimony and make findings of fact as to whether evidence that could not have been obtained at the time of trial clearly establishes [Davis’] innocence.”
The case was heard by Moore, who has been a federal judge since 1994, and recently stepped down as chief judge for the Southern District of Georgia, choosing to remain on active judge duty rather than take senior status.
Moore issued a 174-page order, following the Supreme Court-suggested evidentiary hearing, finding that Davis is not innocent beyond proven doubt.
“This court concludes that executing an innocent person would violate the Eighth Amendment,” the judge wrote. “However, Mr. Davis is not innocent.”
The judge said that the new evidence, including the recantations, did not significantly change the balance of proof offered at the original trial. “While Mr. Davis’s new evidence casts some additional, minimal doubt on his conviction, it is largely smoke and mirrors,” Moore wrote.
“Not all recantations are created equal,” Moore said, saying a reasonable juror was more likely to disregard the recantations rather than abandon earlier testimony.
An analysis by Amnesty International notes that the judge found, “most reasonable jurors” would still vote to convict Davis, but that this suggests some jurors would vote to acquit him. To pass a death sentence in Georgia, a unanimous jury is required.
The state of Georgia is likely to seek another execution date for Troy in the near future, according to activists from the Campaign Against the Death Penalty, though his lawyers are also expected to appeal the ruling.
“Troy may be on death row,” said Davis’ sister Martin Correia, “but he is innocent, and we’re going to prove that.”