The Georgia Supreme Court today ruled 4-3 that Troy Davis, now again facing execution, will not get a new trial. According to the court, statements by a slew of witnesses who claimed that they had lied at trial under police pressure were insufficient to support a finding that a different result would likely be reached if the case were subjected to a new trial — in a case in which the only evidence presented was the apparently coerced testimony of the same witnesses. As a result of this inexplicable finding, the Georgia Supreme Court refused to stand in the way of the execution of a man who insists he is, and whom many believe to be, innocent.
This is a case in which, as we reported previously, one witness offered the following to the court:
I kept telling them that I didn’t know. It was dark, my windows were tinted, and I was scared. It all happened so fast. Even today, I know that I could not honestly identify with any certainty who shot the officer that night.
After the officers talked to me, they gave me a statement and told me to sign it. I signed it. I did not read it because I cannot read.
And another offered:
I nodded and repeated what they said, whether it was true or not…. I am not proud for lying at Troy’s trial, but the police had me so messed up that I felt that’s all I could do or else I would go to jail.
It boggles the mind that the court did not find the new evidence sufficient evidence to support a finding that a different result would be likely if a new trial were granted. The only witnesses who were not themselves accused of committing the crime came forward to claim that they had lied under pressure from police to convict Troy Davis. Three witnesses further claimed that Sylvester Coles had confessed to the crime. Two witnesses further stated that Coles was in possession of a handgun later the same night.
Chief Justice Sears dissented, along with Hunstein and Benham. According to Sears, the GA Supreme Court’s interpretation of the applicable legal standard is wrong:
I believe that this case illustrates that this Court’s approach in extraordinary motions for new trials based on new evidence is overly rigid and fails to allow an adequate inquiry into the fundamental question, which is whether or not an innocent person might have been convicted or even, as in this case, might be put to death.
Sears further urged that “it simply defies all logic and morality” to disregard “categorically” recantation testimony that appears to undermine the validity of the evidence presented at trial. While the majority claimed that it “endeavored to look beyond bare legal principles…to the core question” of whether a jury would reach a different conclusion if presented with the new evidence, the dissenting justices urged the application of a different standard that would treat the recantations with a higher level of deference — or at least something short of categorical exclusion:
[T]his Court is free to adopt rules and standards that best promote the ends of justice, and this case illustrates with alarming clarity why this Court’s rules should allow trial courts to consider all forms of evidence that would be admissible if a new trial were ordered and to exercise sound discretion in weighing that evidence.
Sears and the other dissenters further found the new evidence sufficiently compelling to warrant, at minimum, a hearing by which to assess its credibility. Unfortunately the majority was not persuaded by her sound reasoning.
My understanding is that Mr. Davis’s case now goes back to the Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles, which has the authority to commute his sentence to life with parole, after which point it may parole him. I will plan to follow up with action alerts as I’m advised by those continuing to work on this case on anything that members of the public might be able to do to persuade the parole board or others to help reverse this tragedy.