Where is the Troy Davis case now?

March 8, 2011

“..unless this Court notes probable jurisdiction and corrects the decision below, Georgia will execute a demonstrably innocent person.” – amicus brief from the Innocence Project

Troy Davis‘ legal team is appealing the federal district court ruling that Davis did not meet the court’s self-described “extraordinarily high” standard to prove his innocence following the two-day evidentiary hearing that took place in Savannah last June. Davis’ lawyers submitted an appeal and a petition to the U.S. Supreme Court on January 23.  The State of Georgia responded on February 24 and the Davis team was given an opportunity to file a response to the state by March 6.

The U.S. Supreme Court now has all of the legal documents from Davis and the State needed to determine how it will handle the case. It can respond any time now and, as with other cases filed before the court, an exact timeline is not known. The Supreme Court could accept the district court’s ruling outright and deny Davis’ appeal, clearing the path for Georgia to set an execution date. It could punt the case to the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals. Or it could consider the appeal either this term, which already has a rather full docket, or put it on the docket for next term (following the summer recess).

Because there is some uncertainty about which court has jurisdiction over this appeal, Davis’ lawyers also tried to appeal to the 11th Circuit, which ruled that it does not have jurisdiction. Davis’ lawyers are asking the U.S. Supreme Court to overrule this and allow the 11th Circuit to consider their appeal. The State has filed responses to Davis’ petitions, arguing that Davis has had ample opportunity to appeal already and that the 11th Circuit Court does not have jurisdiction, because the hearing was ordered by the Supreme Court and jurisdiction over the case was never transferred away from the Supreme Court.

Davis is also asking for clarity on what standard should be applied to innocence claims that, like his, do not also allege a constitutional violation. That question has never before been settled by the Court. Davis’ legal team contends that the standard that was applied – “clear and convincing evidence in light of both the old evidence and new evidence presented at the hearing” – had been rejected by the Court in an earlier case as too strict for an actual innocence claim (Schlup v. Delo, 1995).  The State, reiterating the district court’s harsh ruling, counters that Davis’ new evidence was “largely smoke and mirrors,” as the recantations and testimony were not credible, uncorroborated or were lacking in probative value, and would fail to meet even the lowest possible actual innocence standard from Schlup. Davis’ lawyers contend that the full weight of evidence of his innocence would pass muster against a “reasonable jury” standard.

The Davis petition raises several issues regarding the manner in which the district court evaluated the evidence before it. Generally, it faults the district court for viewing individual pieces of evidence in isolation, thereby ignoring its cumulative significance, and challenging the credibility of recantations without regard to evidence of a pattern of police coercion. The State challenges this view and asserts that the court thoroughly reviewed all of the evidence and testimony available to it.

Davis’ petition also suggests that “overwhelming” incriminating evidence against an alternative suspect (Sylvester “Redd” Coles), including testimony of an eyewitness who says he saw Coles murder the policeman, and testimony and affidavits of several witnesses who said that Coles confessed to them, was not given proper weight. In addition, the exclusion of further evidence implicating Coles was based on an improper interpretation of the rules of evidence applicable to the hearing. The State disagrees in its response, challenging the credibility of this testimony and asserting that the district court handled the testimony appropriately.

Davis contends that he should not have been required to call Coles as his own witness in order to have testimony regarding Coles’ confessions heard and considered. Further, he should not have been denied the right to call Coles as a witness once the court (mistakenly) required his testimony. Davis unsuccessfully attempted to produce Coles mid-hearing, following the judge’s clear dissatisfaction that he was not going to appear in court. Davis then asked the judge to reopen the process after the hearing to allow for Coles to testify. That request was denied.

Finally Davis argues that, in making its ruling, the district court should not have relied on ballistics evidence supporting the prosecution’s theory that has now been discredited by the Georgia Bureau of Investigation. The State disagreed with the significance of this newer analysis of this evidence.

The Innocence Project, one of the nation’s leading authorities on wrongful convictions, is weighing in on behalf of Davis with an amicus brief reinforcing Davis’ analysis of numerous errors in the gathering and evaluation of evidence in the case and placing them in the context of new knowledge about how wrongful convictions occur. The Innocence Project reminds the court of the danger and frequency of wrongful convictions and that the common causes are present in the Davis case: faulty eyewitness identification, misleading forensic evidence and unreliable informant testimony. They hold that the case presents the Supreme Court with an opportunity “to provide essential and much-needed guidance to the lower courts on the legal issues that often arise in the cases of actual innocence.”  They also underscore their concern that “…unless this Court notes probable jurisdiction and corrects the decision below, Georgia will execute a demonstrably innocent person.”

Please continue to take action on behalf of Troy Davis!

Laura Kagel also contributed to this post