U.S. Supreme Court Orders Historic Hearing on Innocence Claim in Troy Davis Case

On August 17 the United States Supreme Court ordered a new evidentiary hearing for Georgia death row inmate Troy Davis, whose case has drawn worldwide attention because of new evidence of his possible innocence. For the first time in nearly 50 years, the Court has favorably responded to a petition directed to them, rather than as an appeal from other courts.  With only two Justices writing in dissent, the Court ordered the lower federal court to hear Davis' evidence: "The District Court should receive testimony and make findings of fact as to whether evidence that could not have been obtained at the time of trial clearly establishes petitioner’s innocence." 

Since Davis' initial conviction in 1991, seven of nine eyewitnesses against him have recanted their testimony. Justice Stevens, concurring with Justices Breyer and Ginsburg, wrote, "The substantial risk of putting an innocent man to death clearly provides an adequate justification for holding an evidentiary hearing."  He further responded to Justice Scalia's dissent, which would have denied Davis' request on narrow legal grounds, by strongly rejecting the notion that the law allows the execution of an innocent person: "[I]magine a petitioner in Davis’s situation who possesses new evidence conclusively and definitively proving, beyond any scintilla of doubt, that he is an innocent man. The dissent’s reasoning would allow such a petitioner to be put to death nonetheless. The Court correctly refuses to endorse such reasoning."  An amicus brief had been filed on behalf of Davis by former members of the judiciary and law enforcement officials, including former Georgia Congressman Bob Barr and the former director of the FBI William S. Sessions.

Justice Sotomayor took no part in the ruling.  Justice Thomas joined Justice Scalia's dissent.  Troy Davis had submitted a petition directly with the Supreme Court for a writ of habeas corpus.  If ultimately granted, his conviction could be overturned and he could be set free.

(Sources: J. Holland, "Supreme Court says Georgia man should get hearing," Associated Press, August 17, 2009; Read the Court's decision: In re Troy Anthony Davis, No. 08-1443, U.S. (Aug. 17, 2009) (Stevens, J., concurring); Scotusblog.com).  See Innocence and read the Amicus Brief of judges and prosecutors.