Troy Davis case raising novel legal issues

Condemned inmate Troy Anthony Davis filed the legal equivalent of a Hail Mary when he petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court for a hearing on his innocence claims.

But in August, for the first time in nearly half a century, the nation’s highest court took a case filed directly to its docket that had not come up from a lower court on appeal. Once again, Davis, who sits on death row for killing an off-duty Savannah police officer in 1989, was spared execution. And since the reprieve, Davis’ lawyers say a new witness has come forward on his behalf.

“It was just stunning,” said U.S. Supreme Court historian Lucas A. “Scot” Powe, a professor of law and government at the University of Texas at Austin. “But I understand why the court did it. It was Davis’ last chance. He had exhausted all other possible appeals.”

The high court ordered a judge in Savannah to hold a hearing, receive testimony and make findings as to whether new evidence clearly establishes Davis’ innocence.

This assignment was given to U.S. District Judge William T. Moore Jr., who was appointed by President Bill Clinton in 1994. Davis’ legal team recently provided Moore with a new affidavit from a Savannah woman who said a key prosecution witness, Sylvester “Redd” Coles, told her he was the one who actually shot and killed Officer Mark Allen MacPhail.

Davis’ supporters, led by Amnesty International, have mounted a global campaign on his behalf. Former President Jimmy Carter and Pope Benedict XVI have said Davis should not be executed. Before the Supreme Court made its extraordinary decision, 27 former judges and prosecutors filed a motion on Davis’ behalf and asked the high court to intervene.

In court filings, state Attorney General’s Office lawyers reminded Moore that five separate courts and Georgia’s parole board have rejected Davis’ claims. They predicted that Davis will not be able to prove his innocence at the as-yet unscheduled hearing.

In an order he issued soon after getting the case, Moore noted that the U.S. Supreme Court has never found that the Constitution recognizes a “free-standing innocence claim” such as the one raised by Davis. For this reason, the judge requested the parties to suggest what burden of proof should guide his decision.

Jason Ewart, a member of Davis’ legal team, said Davis is eager to finally present his recantation testimony in court for the first time. But the lawyer acknowledged they “are working on a blank slate. We’re really now talking about what the law should be here.”

Ewart said Davis’ new evidence is powerful. “It essentially eviscerates the evidence presented at trial and presents evidence that wasn’t available at that time,” he said.

In court filings, Davis’ lawyers continue to contend the actual killer was Coles. In a prior interview with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Coles denied being the triggerman.

Coles went to police shortly after MacPhail was shot dead in a Burger King parking lot. MacPhail, a 27-year-old former U.S. Army ranger, had rushed to the scene responding to the wails of Larry Young, who was being pistol-whipped.

Prosecutors said Davis was with Coles when Coles began harassing Young, demanding Young to give him a beer. Davis then began hitting Young with his pistol. After arriving at the scene, MacPhail was shot before he could unholster his firearm.

When Coles told police Davis was at the scene, Davis became the prime suspect.

At the 1991 trial, nine prosecution witnesses testified they saw Davis at the scene, saw him shoot MacPhail or were told by Davis he killed MacPhail. But since then, seven of these witnesses have recanted, saying police pressured them into falsely fingering Davis.

Coles is one of the two key witnesses who has not recanted his testimony. Since the trial, Coles has confessed to five separate friends and family members that he killed MacPhail, said a court filing by Davis’ legal team.

The most recent person to come forward is Quiana Glover, a Savannah woman who said she was at a friend’s house in June when Coles told her he killed MacPhail, according to her affidavit. Glover said she had known Coles since she was a young girl.

According to Glover’s affidavit, a woman who was with Coles at the party told him he was drinking too much and to slow down. “This [expletive] is killing me,” Coles replied.

When Glover said she asked what Coles was talking about, he said, “Man, looky here, I’m the one who killed that [expletive]. But if they want to hold Troy’s [expletive] then let them hold him. Besides, I’ve got kids to raise.”

Glover said that several days later she was at a sports bar when she saw a married couple, Hollis Mitchell and Alicia Blakely, wearing “I Am Troy Davis” T-shirts and asking people to sign a petition they were going to give to the local district attorney.

Glover said she signed the petition and then, after hesitating, told them what she said Coles had told her, her affidavit said. She gave them her cell phone number and was later contacted by an investigator for Davis’ legal team, who took her sworn statement.

Glover did not return phone calls last week seeking comment.

In a telephone interview on Thursday, Blakely recounted meeting Glover at the sports bar.

“She came up to me and said she had something to tell me,” Blakely said. “She said, ‘I know who killed that police officer.’’’

After Glover repeated what she said Coles had told her, Blakely said, “I couldn’t believe it. I was like, oh, my gosh, we’ve got to get that out there.”

Timeline of the Troy Davis case

Aug. 30, 1991 – A Chatham County jury sentences Troy Davis to death for the 1989 murder of Savannah Police Officer Mark Allen MacPhail.

July 16, 2007 – With Davis' execution set for the next day, the state parole board issues a stay.

March 17, 2008 – By a 4-3 vote, the Georgia Supreme Court upholds Davis' death sentence, rejecting his request for a hearing.

Sept. 12, 2008 – The state parole board declines to grant clemency to Davis.

Sept. 23, 2008 – Less than two hours before Davis' scheduled execution, the U.S. Supreme Court grants him a stay.

Oct. 14, 2008 – The U.S. Supreme Court declines to hear Davis' appeal.

April 16, 2009 – The federal appeals court, after granting Davis yet another stay of execution, denies Davis' bid for a hearing in a 2-1 decision.

Aug. 17, 2009 – The U.S. Supreme Court orders a federal judge to hear evidence in Davis' case.