The case of Troy Anthony Davis took another extraordinary turn on Monday as the U.S. Supreme Court ordered a federal district judge to hear testimony on the death row inmate's claims that he did not murder a Savannah, Ga., police officer.
Justice Antonin Scalia said in a dissent that the high court hadn't made a similar move in nearly 50 years.
The decision was welcomed by supporters of Davis, who for years have claimed that prosecution witnesses have recanted their testimony from the 1991 trial in which a jury condemned Davis to die for the 1989 killing of Officer Mark Allen MacPhail.
Georgia Attorney General Thurbert E. Baker, whose office has fought Davis' efforts to gain relief, issued a measured response to the ruling, saying simply that he hoped the hearing would resolve doubts about the case.
The timing of the decision was unexpected, as many assumed after the high court failed to act on Davis' filing before the Court recessed in June that it wouldn't take up the matter until a new term started in October. "I didn't think it was going to be this kind of Monday," said Jason C. Ewart of Arnold & Porter's Washington, D.C., office, who has been representing Davis.
Davis' lawyers took an unusual path to Monday's success -- convincing the nation's highest court to view favorably a petition for an writ of habeas corpus filed directly with the Supreme Court, rather than the lower courts.
Davis' backers have pointed to post-trial affidavits they say represent the recantations of seven of the prosecution's nine trial witnesses, as well as claims that another prosecution witness had confessed to the crime. They had been unsuccessful in obtaining relief for Davis before the State Board of Pardons and Paroles, the Supreme Court of Georgia and the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, although they have managed to keep Davis alive long past his first execution date in 2007, and through a changing of the guard at the Chatham County district attorney's office. The most recent petition filed with the U.S. Supreme Court was considered a long shot, not just because such petitions rarely succeed at the high court but because the Supreme Court had previously rejected bids for help from Davis.
In its ruling Monday (pdf), the nation's highest court transferred Davis' request for a writ of habeas corpus to the Southern District of Georgia for the district court's "hearing and determination." The Court said the district judge "should receive testimony and make findings of fact as to whether evidence that could not have been obtained at the time of the trial clearly establishes petitioner's innocence."
It's not clear how each justice voted. The Court's newest member, Sonia Sotomayor, did not participate in the Court's decision. Three of the Court's other justices -- Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Justices Anthony M. Kennedy and Samuel A. Alito Jr. -- signed on to neither Scalia's dissent nor a concurring opinion written by Justice John Paul Stevens.
A press release issued by Amnesty International cheered the decision as a 6-2 ruling, which presumes that Roberts, Kennedy and Alito must have voted in favor of the Court's ruling since they did not signal otherwise. But a report by Lyle Denniston on SCOTUSblog said it was unclear how Roberts, Kennedy and Alito had voted, allowing that at least two of them must have agreed to the result in order to form a majority of the eight justices participating.
Appended to the Court's brief explanation of its ruling was a spirited exchange between Scalia and Stevens, whose concurrence was written to respond to Scalia's critique (pdf) of the Court's decision.
Joined by Justice Clarence Thomas, a Pin Point, Ga., native who has close ties to Savannah, Scalia wrote that the Court was sending the district judge "on a fool's errand."