In an unprecedented move, the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta recently stayed the Oct. 27 execution of Georgia death row prisoner Troy Davis.
On Oct. 24, the court said it would consider a new hearing on whether the Constitution’s Eighth Amendment ban on cruel and unusual punishment prohibits the execution of the innocent.
In September, the U.S. Supreme Court halted Davis’ execution to consider the issue but then denied to hear the case.
“The case is extraordinary,” says Stephen Bright, president and former director of the Southern Center for Human Rights, based in Atlanta. Last year, the Georgia Supreme Court also stayed the execution to consider the innocence claim, he says, but then denied it by a single vote, 4-3.
Now the federal court – applying the federal law regarding claims of innocence – has granted another stay to decide whether to order a hearing on the innocence issues.
In 1991, Davis, a 39-year-old African-American man, was convicted and sentenced to death for the 1989 murder of Mark MacPhail, a white, off-duty police officer, at a Burger King parking lot in Savannah, Ga. Davis was convicted based solely on witness testimony that contained many inconsistencies, according to a 35-page Amnesty International report released in February 2007.
With the federal court’s recent stay, Davis’ attorneys have 15 days to make their case for an appeal. The Georgia state’s attorney then has 10 days to respond. The outcome of these legal maneuvers was unresolved as In These Times went to press.
Since the original 1991 trial, seven of the nine witnesses have recanted. Many of them have stated in sworn affidavits that police coerced them to testify against Davis. What’s more, no physical evidence against Davis – such as the gun used in the crime – was ever found. Davis, who maintains his innocence, surrendered himself to the police in 1989 to clear his name.
He has received an outpouring of attention and international support, including from former South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu and former President Jimmy Carter. On Oct. 23, his supporters organized a Global Day of Action for Troy Davis. More than 35 cities around the world held marches, rallies and other actions opposing the Oct. 27 execution.
Martina Correa, Davis’ sister, says it has been difficult for her brother and their family to say goodbye to him twice, and to prepare for the state to execute him.
“Yet Troy remains prayerful, faithful and humbled by all the show of human kindness,” says Correa. “Our prayer is that the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals will rule in Troy’s favor and that no matter what happens, activists from around the world will stay focused on the bigger picture and that is the abolition of the death penalty.”
As of Oct. 31, Georgia was one of seven states to carry out executions in 2008. All but one of the 30 U.S. executions to date were in the South – 14 in Texas, four in Virginia, three in Georgia, two in South Carolina, two in Mississippi, two in Oklahoma, two in Florida and one in Ohio. At the same time, this fall, courts have granted stays of execution in at least a dozen cases – including Davis’.
Between September 2007 and April 2008, a national de facto moratorium was in place while the Supreme Court considered whether Kentucky’s lethal injection protocol violated the Eighth Amendment in Baze v. Rees. After the high court’s April 2008 decision that it did not, executions have since resumed and have taken place at a rate of at least one per week.
Almost half of the prisoners executed were African-American or Latino (47 percent), and most victims in those murders were white (59 percent). Additionally, no white defendants were executed in 2008 for the murder of an African American, according to October statistics from the Death Penalty Information Center (DPIC), a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit.
In Texas, where the state carried out 14 executions since May, the DPIC anticipates more than 14 additional executions there by the end of the year. But Texas and the other Southern states carrying out executions are exceptions to a declining U.S. trend, as the death penalty faces increasing scrutiny.
As Correa says, “The road has been hard and uphill, and we still have a battle at hand.”
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Alice Kim is the director of human rights practice at the University of Chicago’s Pozen Center for Human Rights, teaches at a maximum security prison with the Prison+Neighborhood Arts Project, and is a co-founder of Chicago Torture Justice Memorials. She is co-editor of The Long Term: Resisting Life Sentences, Working Toward Freedom (Haymarket Books).