The Supreme Court, without a noted dissent, on Monday cleared the way for the state of Georgia to carry out the execution of Troy Anthony Davis of Savannah, rejecting five different ways that Davis’s lawyers had sought to press his claim that he did not commit a 1989 murder of an off-duty policeman.   In three brief orders, none of which contained any explanation, the Court brought to a sudden end a two-decades-long campaign to spare Davis’s life, on the theories that most of those who testified against him have recanted and that another man did the killing, and has since admitted it.

Besides turning aside all of Davis’s requests for a new chance to show his innocence, the Court granted review of one new case: a test of whether there is a “minister’s exception” to civil rights laws that protects religious organizations in their workplace policies and, if there is such an exception, whether it bars a discrimination claim by a parochial school teacher who teaches non-religious subjects.  The case of Hosanna Tabor Church v. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, et al. (10-553) will be heard in the Court’s next Term, starting in October.

The Davis case is one of the most highly visible cases amid scores of them in recent years, claiming wrongful convictions, especially in murder cases.  The most unusual fact of the Davis case was that, for the first time in nearly a half-century, the Supreme Court itself explicitly ordered a federal judge to go over the evidence to test Davis’s claim that he did not commit the crime that occurred in the parking lot of a fast-food restaurant and bus station in Savannah on the night of August 19, 1989.

That judge wound up ruling that Davis “is not innocent.”  Because of what that judge and the Eleventh Circuit Court had done later in the case, Davis’s last hope was in the Supreme Court itself.  But, after examining at one Conference the complex array of maneuvers his lawyers had attempted, the Justices simply rejected all of them.  Although no dissents were reported, that does not necessarily mean that all nine Justices agreed with the outcome.   In fact, two of the Justices, Stephen G. Breyer and Ruth Bader Ginsburg, had joined in a comment in August 2009 that there was in this case “a substantial risk of putting an innocent man to death.”

The most likely explanation for the result was that at least a majority of the Justices had concluded that they had given Davis what he wanted — a federal court review of his claim — and that the judge’s rejection of that claim was thorough enough to resolve it.   Davis’s lawyers had argued in their various new pleas that the judge, U.S. District Judge William T. Moore, Jr., of Savannah, in his 172-page decision last August, had in fact not considered all of the evidence that would help support a finding of innocence.  A majority of the Court apparently was not persuaded that there was a sufficient flaw in the way Judge Moore approached the case.   After Judge Moore had ruled, the Eleventh Circuit Court concluded that it had no authority to review the case, since the Supreme Court had sent it to Judge Moore, so a return to the Supreme Court was the only open avenue of appeal.

In returning to the Supreme Court, Davis’s attorneys had said they preferred a return of the case to the Eleventh Circuit, contending that it did, in fact, have the authority to review Judge Moore’s opinion.  But, if the Court were unwilling to take that step (advocated in Davis v. Humphrey, 10-949, which the Court did deny Monday), his counsel asked the Justices to review themselves the evidence to support his claim.   In response to that alternative request, the Court on Monday dismissed his appeal, along with a plea for an original habeas writ, and a plea for a common law writ (all put forth in Davis v. Humphrey, 10-950).  Usually, when the Court dismisses a case (which takes at least five votes), it gives a reason; this time, it did not.

As a final rejection, the Court denied Davis’s first original habeas writ — the one that had led the Court, in August of last year, to order the case reviewed in District Court in Savannah.   That plea had remained on the Court’s docket (In re Davis, 08-1443) since the Court’s order giving Davis the further chance to press his evidence.   All told, then, the Court disposed of five separate legal avenues that his lawyers had outlined.

It now appears that state officials in Georgia are free to schedule a new execution date.  Davis was within two hours of being executed in September 2008, when the Supreme Court blocked the state from carrying it out, until the Justices could act on the habeas writ plea in In re Davis.   With Monday’s order denying that plea, the stay of his execution was lifted automatically.

In turning aside all legal requests, the Court bypassed a chance to answer two fundamental questions that the Court has never answered explicitly about convicted individuals’ claims of innocence: one, whether the Constitution bars the execution of an individual who is actually innocent of the crime, and, two, what standard of proof are federal judges to use in judging whether an individual actually is innocent.   In Judge Moore’s decision, he ruled that it would be unconstitutional to execute someone who is actually innocent, but set a fairly tough standard of proof; applying that standard, he found that Davis is not innocent.  On Monday, that decision became final.

Posted in Davis v. Humphrey, Davis v. Humphrey, Featured, Merits Cases

Recommended Citation: Lyle Denniston, Davis innocence plea rejected, SCOTUSblog (Mar. 28, 2011, 10:51 AM), http://www.scotusblog.com/2011/03/davis-innocence-plea-rejected/