DEATH PENALTY-US: Inmate Gets Rare Last-Minute Reprieve

SAVANNAH, Georgia - Troy Anthony Davis, a death row inmate in the U.S. state of Georgia whose guilt has been challenged by new evidence, won a 90-day stay of his sentence Monday, just hours before his scheduled execution.

"I'm exhausted but elated," Martina Correia, Davis's sister, told IPS. "They [the Parole Board] were asking a lot of questions and were engaging. They were so respectful for the family. We had this perception, we've always been treated so badly because of what he's accused of." "There was so much doubt in this case. They saw that today. Troy was calling my mother. She was sitting wrapped in a blanket. The lawyer called and said there was a 90-day stay. Troy said he was so thankful and he got on his knees to thank God," Correia said.

In the days preceding the scheduled execution, a wide array of advocates converged to save a man whose guilt seems uncertain, even unlikely, now that seven of nine witnesses have recanted in his case, and new witnesses have implicated another man.

The International Action Centre of Atlanta and others staged a recent protest. Family members held a candlelight vigil. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution newspaper's editorial board criticised the pending execution. Even a former director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation under right-wing President Ronald Reagan, William Sessions, wrote a column in support of Davis.

Davis was convicted of murdering a Savannah, Georgia, police officer in 1989. No physical evidence or murder weapon was ever presented at his trial.

"He's relieved he's not going to be killed, but he had made his peace with God. They moved him to 'Death Watch' today. He said we fought a good fight, let's remember the McPhail [victim's] family and pray for peace and understanding," Correia said.

"We were just asking for them to be fair and objective. If any other court would've stepped up and examined any of this, we wouldn't have gotten this far. And they're actually doing what the court system should've done long ago," she added.

A press release issued by the state late Monday said the Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles "will not allow an execution to proceed in this State unless and until its members are convinced there is no doubt as to the guilt of the accused..."

"Whereas, those representing... Davis have asserted they can and will present live witnesses and other evidence to the members of the Board to support their contention that there remains some doubt as to his guilt... It is hereby ordered the execution... is suspended until midnight of October 14, 2007, or until this Board issues an order..."

The meeting of Davis's lawyers and supporters with the Board lasted from 9 a.m. until 3:15 p.m., about six hours. After this, the Board met with state prosecutors.

"My impression is there so much material to go through today they didn't feel prepared. It does give them time to continue examining the facts," Laura Moye, deputy director of Amnesty International USA Southern Regional Office, told IPS.

"They still have a responsibility and a duty to consider clemency. One thing that could happen, there is an appeal to the Georgia Supreme Court, that could kick in before they make any kind of decision," she said.

"We feel it means that hope is still alive that justice can still be done. But it doesn't mean that we have a victory. It just means there is more time," Moye said.

It also means additional time to increase public awareness about the case and issues at stake.

"You're going to see continued interest, because some people are late coming to this story," Moye said. "The legal team was not able to produce all the witnesses in person. Four witnesses came. But they do have the affidavits [for all witnesses]."

Georgia Congressman John Lewis was among those who spoke in support of Davis at the hearing Monday. Rep. Hank Johnson, also of Georgia, offered to speak in support of Davis, spokesperson Deb Speights told IPS.

Attorneys for Davis have filed a motion for a new trial in state court, since the U.S. Supreme Court recently refused to hear Davis' case and he has exhausted his federal appeals. After a state judge declined to overturn the original ruling, his attorneys appealed to the Georgia Supreme Court. That case is still pending.

"Georgia law allows you to go back and say the world has changed so dramatically. It's like a safety valve, [but] it tends not to work very often. In most cases, you don't have dramatic new evidence," said Philip Horton, a pro bono attorney with the Arnold and Porter law firm.

Davis is still hoping for clemency from either the court or the Board, his sister said.

Experts say that the case, which has finally captured mass media attention in these final days, reflects a much more systemic problem in the United States, where procedural technicalities have become more important to many judges than innocence or guilt itself.

"The federal courts are generally pretty hostile to these so-called post-conviction proceedings. They've set up a whole bunch of traps for the unwary. If you fail to do x, you waive your rights. Most of these things wouldn't occur to ordinary people. It's real easy to waive your rights," Horton said.

Davis did not have good public legal representation in his original trial due to lack of funding from the state of Georgia. Moreover, several witnesses recanted their testimony after the fact.

"The first response of the courts is to say, be that as it may, it's too late for it now because you failed to raise it in time, or you failed to do something else," Horton said, describing what is called a procedural default.

"The courts don't decide it on the merits. They decide the claim can no longer be raised," he said. "When the prosecutors are asked about this in the press, they say they presented this evidence already to court after court after court. This is the way the game is played. The public doesn't have a clue."

Several of the witnesses who recanted said they were pressured by police into implicating Davis, and that they were threatened with possibly being charged themselves if they didn't cooperate.

"They said 'we've got Troy and maybe we'll come after you as an accomplice'," Horton said of the recantations.

"Most of these witnesses were African American who were young and easily intimidated. Or one who had issues with the law, easily manipulated -- she said at the time, 'I'm pregnant, I have four kids. I can't go back to jail'," Moye said.

The restrictive laws that prevent courts from considering new evidence are contained in the 1996 Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act. The Act has dramatically undermined habeus corpus in the U.S.

Two U.S. congressmen, Hank Johnson of Georgia and Artur Davis of Alabama, told The Hill newspaper in Washington, DC that the 1996 AEDPA should be revisited, but they know of no current efforts to do so.

Thirty-four percent of all inmates executed since 1976 have been African American, while 79 percent of all victims in death penalty cases were white, according to statistics from the Death Penalty Information Centre.

Matthew Cardinale is the editor of Atlanta Progressive News,

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