Death Row Case Embodies Systemic Flaws, Critics Say

(photo: Amnesty International)

Death Row Case Embodies Systemic Flaws, Critics Say

NEW YORK - Since his conviction on Aug. 21, 1991, Troy Davis has been engaged in an exhaustive legal battle for his exoneration and release from death row. His efforts have garnered international support from organizations and figureheads such as Amnesty International, the European parliament, Desmond Tutu, and Pope Benedict XVI.

Within the United States, members of Congress and legal scholars have offered their services and influence to his case as well. However, as Davis's most recent petition for a writ of habeas corpus was denied by the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals last month, it appears that time may be running out.

Following the court's decision in May, Davis filed an original petition for habeas corpus with the U.S. Supreme Court. The petition asks that his case be re-opened due to the unprecedented amount of new evidence.

It's the last option that Davis's legal team, led by attorney Jason Ewart, has left.

"What we've been asking for the past five years is an evidentiary hearing, to hear our new evidence which includes the recantations of seven of our nine state witnesses," Ewart told IPS.

"This is our last try with the U.S. Supreme Court to try and get that. Unfortunately, it is an uphill battle because the U.S. Supreme Court does not often grant relief or a remand for hearings very often in cases like these," he said.

Ewart later added that the Supreme Court has not approved this type of petition in 85 years.

Davis was convicted and sentenced to death for the murder of Mark MacPhail, a Savannah, Georgia police officer. On three occasions, Davis has managed to obtain a stay of execution. His most recent one, a 30-day stay granted by the 11th Circuit of Appeals Court on Apr. 16, has since expired.

On May 16, Amnesty International organized a "Global Day of Action for Troy Davis", an event that Laura Moye, deputy director of the Southern Regional Office of Amnesty International, said "galvanized support from people in over 45 states in the U.S. and in 14 countries around the world."

As Davis's legal team runs out of options in the courtroom, his supporters are looking to government officials to use their influence in the case.

Moye said that "the point of the global day of action was to keep the light on Troy Davis' case because there are several different sets of officials that have the power to prevent his execution and to see that the evidence in his case finally get heard." Among those officials is the newly elected Chatham County District Attorney, Larry Chisolm.

Ewart told IPS that if Larry Chisolm examined Davis's case and was convinced of his innocence, "he would be able to ask the state processes, which is the Georgia State Board of Pardons and Paroles, to reconsider and issue of pardon or clemency here."

Edward DuBose, president of the Georgia State Conference of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, a civil rights group, agreed, saying that "Right now, we're trying to talk to him, send letters to him, to get him more involved."

Davis's case has been largely impeded by the Anti-Terrorism and Effective Use of the Death Penalty ACT of 1996 (AEDPA), which was quoted by the 11th Circuit of Appeals Court, as meant to limit "condemned killers convicted in State or Federal court to one Federal habeas petition - one bite of the apple - in order to "streamline the lengthy appeals process."

Ewart, however, explained that under AEDPA "you couldn't make a stand-alone innocence claim, you had to have some procedural or technical problem at trial."

"The way the AEDPA was drafted, innocence is not enough," he said.

Former Congressman Bob Barr, a death penalty advocate, wrote in an Op-Ed column for the New York Times that "This threat of injustice has come about because the lower courts have misread the Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996, a law I helped write when I was in Congress."

Many Davis supporters also believe that this case puts the death penalty itself under scrutiny.

As Moye told IPS, "The Troy Davis case symbolizes all that's wrong with the death penalty in the United States. You look at the different elements here and you look at a system that's much more concerned with technicalities and procedure than it is with really getting down to what is the truth."

Ewart said that he believes the Davis case reveals the way the U.S. legal system is too dependent on DNA evidence for death penalty exonerations.

"There has to be some sort of safety valve there for when you have an eyewitness case like ours and there is no DNA, you got to talk to some witnesses put them up in a hearing, subject them to cross-examination, have them explain," he said.

"Unfortunately, our system, I don't think is ready for that or there's no provisions for that. You've got to have DNA evidence or they're going to execute you," he added.

Earlier this month, Congressman John Lewis and Congressman Hank Johnson visited Troy Davis to show their support. In a news conference afterwards, they provided some insight into what legislative changes might be made.

"We will talk with the chair of the House Judiciary Committee and the chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee." said Lewis. "And maybe we can bring up some legislation. We've got to work down different roads to bring simple justice."

On Jun. 25, the Supreme Court will convene and review Troy Davis' case. The court could come to a decision or push the case back to October. Given this timeline, supporters of Davis are working with a sense of urgency.

Congressman Lewis made this clear when he spoke with the press outside the prison where Troy Davis is held. "We must do, we must act and we must act now. I came away convinced that this man is innocent - more than ever before. We must not allow the state of Georgia to put this man to death."

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