In a major ruling, the Supreme Court on Monday ordered an evidentiary hearing on innocence claims of Troy Davis, who is on death row in Georgia for the 1989 murder of police officer Mark MacPhail. Not only did the Supreme Court stop the execution, but it created new law on the right of the defendant to present such evidence — a holding that drew the outrage of the conservative wing of the Court. While only a paragraph long, the unsigned opinion represents the first such order in decades for a new hearing to “receive testimony and make findings of fact”. Justice Scalia called it a “fool’s errand.”
Seven of the witnesses against Mr. Davis have recanted and others have implicated the man who first identified Davis as the gunman.
Justice John Paul Stevens insisted that “[t]he substantial risk of putting an innocent man to death clearly provides an adequate justification for holding an evidentiary hearing.”
Justice Scalia said that, after numerous appeals (with the new evidence reviewed in the form of affidavits), the remand was a “sure loser” and a “fool’s errand.” More importantly, Scalia noted “[t]his court has never held that the Constitution forbids the execution of a convicted defendant who had a full and fair trial but is later able to convince a habeas court that he is ‘actually’ innocent.”
Yet, in 1993, Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist wrote in Herrera v. Collins, that (while not present in that case) “we may assume, for the sake of argument in deciding this case, that in a capital case a truly persuasive demonstration of ‘actual innocence’ made after trial would render the execution of a defendant unconstitutional and warrant federal habeas relief.”
I discuss the case on CNN yesterday, here.
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