The U.S. Supreme Court on Tuesday granted a last-minute, temporary reprieve to a death row inmate in Georgia whose case has gained national attention.
Troy Anthony Davis, 39, was scheduled to be executed tonight for the 1989 murder of a Savannah police officer, though several key witnesses have recanted their incriminating testimony.
The Supreme Court, in a brief order, temporarily stayed the execution until Monday, when the court was already scheduled to meet to decide if it would hear Davis' appeal. The court usually declines to hear such cases.
If the court does not agree to hear the appeal, Davis will still be executed.
Davis' case has attracted international attention because seven of the nine witnesses who testified against him in his 1991 murder trial have since recanted, several of them saying they felt pressured by police to lie on the stand and implicate Davis. There was no physical evidence tying Davis to the murder of Officer Mark MacPhail and several new witnesses have come forward to implicate another man in the crime, Davis' lawyers say.
Former President Carter, former Georgia Congressman Bob Barr and Pope Benedict XVI, among others, have called on the state parole board to reduce Davis' sentence to life in prison. The board earlier this month rejected Davis' clemency petition after what it called an exhaustive review of the evidence in his case.
Stephen Bright, a professor at Yale Law School and director of the Southern Center for Human Rights, called the original timing of Davis' execution "unseemly."
"All across the spectrum of people's views on criminal justice, there's near unanimity that this trial was not reliable," he said. "We can't say with certainty that this man is guilty of this crime. In fact the probability is he is not guilty."
A spokesman for the Georgia Attorney General's Office declined to comment on pending litigation. In court papers, the state has asked the Supreme Court not to stay the execution and has argued that the recantations are not enough to grant Davis a new trial.
Several courts have agreed, saying there was not enough evidence that Davis received a constitutionally unfair trial. By a 4-3 decision, the state Supreme Court in March found that the new evidence probably would not have produced a different verdict at trial.
MacPhail, a father of two, was murdered Aug. 19, 1989, after responding to a fight outside a Burger King. Davis testified that he was nearby but was not involved in MacPhail's death.
The next day, a witness told police that Davis had killed MacPhail. Davis had left town and surrendered to police a few days later, according to the Attorney General's Office.
Witnesses at the trial said Davis pistol-whipped a homeless man then shot MacPhail when he intervened.
"My son didn't have a chance," said MacPhail's mother, Anneliese MacPhail, who added that she was "disgusted" by the attention being paid to Davis.
"I feel disgusted about the whole case," she said. "I lost my son, my grandchildren lost their father. No one thinks about all the tragic things that we are going through and then they are making a circus about someone who is guilty as can be."
Seven witnesses have since changed their testimony. Darrell Collins, a friend of Davis', said in an affidavit that he initially denied that Davis was involved in the murder, but "after a couple hours of the detectives yelling at me and threatening me, I finally broke down and told them what they wanted to hear. They would tell me things that they said had happened and I would repeat whatever they said."
Another witness said she was on parole and feared she would be sent back to prison if she did not tell police that Davis killed MacPhail.
"We need to have a day in court where a judge hears the evidence and explanation showing why that person likely did testify falsely," said Jason Ewart, Davis' lawyer at Arnold and Porter in Washington, D.C.
Davis is now focused on his family and friends, said his sister Martina Correia who visited him Monday.
"He's more concerned about us than he is for himself," she said. "He says God has given him peace. If his life is given, it's not given in vain because people will make a stand against what's happening in Georgia."