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June 21, 2010

A year after SCOTUS intervenes, Troy Davis innocence hearing about to start

As detailed in this local article, which is headlined "Court to hear innocence claim in Ga. death case," a high-profile capital case that prompted an extraordinary move by the Supreme Court is finally moving forward this week. Here are the basics:

Death penalty appeals from condemned inmates usually hinge on technicalities, legal hiccups and procedural errors. But this week a federal judge will hear evidence from a death row inmate convicted of gunning down a Savannah police officer that will center on a more fundamental question: is he innocent?

Troy Anthony Davis' attorneys and legal experts alike say such an argument is highly unusual. And many say the hearing, scheduled Wednesday in U.S. District Court in Savannah, marks the first time the U.S. Supreme Court has ordered such a hearing in a death penalty case.

Then again, just about everything surrounding Davis' case has been extraordinary. He was sentenced to die in 1991 for the shooting death of Savannah police officer Mark MacPhail, who was killed in 1989 while working off-duty at a bus station after he rushed to the aid of a homeless man who had been attacked.

Since then, the case has become a national flashpoint for death penalty critics who argue Davis is the victim of mistaken identity. Donald E. Wilkes Jr., a University of Georgia law professor and expert on death penalty appeals, said federal courts normally look only at questions of due process and violations of the accused's right to a fair trial. Claims from inmates such as Davis, seeking a fresh look at their guilt or innocence, are routinely rejected by federal judges, he said....

Davis' lawyers say seven witnesses from his trial have either contradicted their testimony or recanted it. Several people have also signed affidavits since the trial saying they heard another man confess to pulling the trigger.

His execution has been delayed three times, partly because of these concerns. In August, the Supreme Court ordered the new hearing that gives Davis the chance to present the testimony that his attorneys hope will prove he was mistakenly identified as MacPhail's killer....

According to court filings, Davis' attorneys plan to call 14 witnesses during the Wednesday hearing. Several are trial witnesses who have recanted all or part of their testimony. Others claim someone other than Davis confessed to the crime. "Anything other than a very strong, overwhelming case is probably not going to suffice," Wilkes said.

The Supreme Court said the evidence must "clearly establish" Davis' innocence, but what that means remains unclear.... The result of the hearing could force the Supreme Court to decide whether a death penalty defendant can raise what attorneys call a free-standing claim of innocence -- that is, a stand-alone claim that the client is innocent, not that the sentence should be commuted on procedural grounds.

Related Davis case posts:

June 21, 2010 at 09:41 AM | Permalink

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