The Supreme Court in an exceptional move Monday ordered a U.S. district court in Georgia to hear new testimony in the case of Troy Davis, who was sentenced to death for killing a police officer nearly two decades ago.
The justices said a lower court judge should determine whether new evidence "clearly establishes" Davis' innocence. Since his jury conviction 18 years ago, seven of the prosecution's witnesses have recanted their testimony about what happened in a Savannah parking lot the night officer Mark Allen MacPhail was shot dead.
Further, some individuals have since said the prosecution's key witness was the shooter, not Davis.
Davis' case has elicited national interest across the ideological spectrum, and the NAACP and former congressman Bob Barr, R-Ga., had submitted "friend of the court" briefs siding with Davis' in his bid for high court intervention. Davis' case had been pending before the justices for months, and the majority's action demonstrates that they were plainly concerned that an innocent person might be facing death.
Justice Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas dissented from the order, declaring the court's action "extraordinary … one not taken in nearly 50 years" and asserting that "every judicial and executive body that has examined (Davis') stale claim of innocence has been unpersuaded."
Taking issue with Scalia's stance, Justice John Paul Stevens wrote that he and Thomas were wrongly assuming, despite the new information, that Davis was guilty. Stevens noted that several key witnesses against Davis had recanted, several people "had implicated the state's principal witness," and that no state or federal court had ever reviewed all the new evidence and whether it could show Davis' innocence.
"The substantial risk of putting an innocent man to death clearly provides an adequate justification" for a hearing, Stevens wrote in a concurring statement, joined by Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer.
Newest Justice Sonia Sotomayor took no part in the consideration of Davis' petition.