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New plea on innocence

Saying that no court has ever held a hearing on a Georgia death row inmate’s claim of innocence of a murder 20 years ago, and noting that the Supreme Court is his last hope, lawyers for Troy Anthony Davis have asked the Justices to order a full review in a lower court of the claim that someone else committed the crime and that key witnesses against Davis have recanted.

The plea for an “original” habeas writ — that is, one not pursued first in lower courts — was filed Tuesday in In re Davis (docket 08-1443).

The petition for a type of writ that the Court’s rules say is “rarely granted,” a type that will be granted only in unusual circumstances, can be found here.  An amicus brief supporting a new hearing was filed by a group of former prosecutors and judges, including former Deputy Attorney General Larry Thompson; it can be found here.

Because this is an original plea, there is no lower court ruling for the Justices to review.  However, the latest Eleventh Circuit Court decision, a 2-1 ruling on April 16 barring Davis from filing a new habeas plea in lower courts, can be found here.  A stay of Davis’ execution ran out on May 16, but no new execution date has been set. The state of Georgia has 30 days to reply to the new plea in the Supreme Court.

The Supreme Court on Oct. 14 refused to review an earlier petition by Davis, seeking the Justices’ review of a Georgia Supreme Court ruling against him. That case was Davis v. Georgia (08-66).

Davis was sentenced to death after being convicted of the murder of a Savannah, Ga., police officer on August 19, 1989.  Since the trial, seven of the nine witnesses who said Davis had done the killing have recanted their trial testimony, saying they were coerced by police or were subjected to questionable interrogation tactics.  Davis’ lawyers also said that newly discovered witnesses have said that another man at the scene committed the murder of Officer Mark MacPhail, and that the other man himself had confessed to friends.

In the new petition, Davis’ counsel wrote that “a study of federal habeas case law reveals no case in which seven State witnesses have recanted their testimony, much less a case with seven recantations supplemented by four confessions from the alternative suspect.  Moreover, the recantations presented to this Court are to the rare variety: recantations from State witensses who were innocent bystanders.”

Almost all recantation cases over the past ten years that have been summarily rejected without an evidentiary hearing involved recantations from accomplices or a family member” of the accused, the petition said.

The filing does not ask the Supreme Court to rule directly at this point on Davis’ claim of innocence.  Rather, it asks the Justices to transfer the case to a federal District Court with an order that it hold an evidentiary hearing.

The Court’s rules indicate that such an original plea will not be heard unless, among other things, the individual involved shows that no other court could provide a remedy.  Because he has been barred by the Eleventh Circuit from pursuing a new habeas plea in lower courts, his “last hope for an evidentiary hearing to prove his innocence lies with this Court.”.