Supreme Court Gives Death Row Inmate Chance To Prove Innocence. Sotomayor Casts First Supreme Court Vote

8 years ago

Troy Anthony Davis is a prisoner on death row in Georgia. He was convicted in 1991 of killing a police officer in 1989 despite a lack of physical evidence. Davis was convicted on the basis of eyewitness testimony and subsequently seven of the nine witnesses who testified against him have recanted their testimony. New evidence has pointed to one of the witnesses who has not recanted as the actual killer. Davis's attorneys have petitioned state and federal courts for the opportunity to hold an evidentiary hearing to present new evidence of Davis's innocence.

Because of restrictions on federal appeals, Davis's case made its way to the United States Supreme Court. On Monday, in a 6-2 decision (Recently seated Justice Sonia Sotomayor did not participate in the decision in this case, but cast her first vote in another) the court ordered the federal trial court in Georgia to hold an evidentiary hearing. The ruling is not only extremely rare but might be the first of its kind on the question of the right of a prisoner sentenced to death to present new evidence of innocence in order to prevent execution.

Justice Antonin Scalia, who was joined by Justice Clarence Thomas, dissented from the majority opinion and cited the lack of precedence for the ruling:

Justice Scalia, in a dissent joined by Justice Clarence Thomas, said the hearing would be “a fool’s errand,” because Mr. Davis’s factual claims were “a sure loser.”

He went on to say that the federal courts would be powerless to assist Mr. Davis even if he could categorically establish his innocence.

“This court has never held,” Justice Scalia wrote, “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.”

The court's ruling comes after support for Davis from groups such as the NAACP and Amnesty International. Bloggers have also championed Davis's cause and kept attention and a spotlight on the case.

Although there is a good deal of happiness about the ruling, there is also a good deal of anger at Justice Scalia's assertion that innocence is not a defense against execution and Justice Thomas once again asserting his extreme (he sometimes provides the lone metaphoric [because he very rarely speaks at hearings] voice from the bench) belief that prisoners lack rights. I could not find blog reaction in support of the dissenting view so if you know of any please add a link in the comments.

Sotomayor Votes

Although new Justice Sonia Sotomayor did not vote in the Davis case, she did cast her first vote on Monday in another death penalty case. In a 5-4 ruling allowing the execution of Jason Getsy in Ohio on Tuesday, Sotomayor joined Justices Stephen Breyer, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and John Paul Stevens in voting for a stay of execution which her predecesor, Justice David Souter often did, as well.

Blogging Reactions and Related Reading:

Richard Fausset at the Los Angeles Times: Supreme Court orders new hearing for Georgia death row inmate

The surprising move may indicate that the federal justice system is moving away from its conservative position on death penalty appeals.

Nordette Adams at Whose shoes are these anyway?: SCOTUS Grants Troy Davis Evidentiary Hearing

The Christian Progressive Libera (Leutisha Stills) at Jack and Jill Politics: SCOTUS Orders a New Hearing for Troy Davis

Cara at Feministe: Supreme Court Orders a New Look at Troy Davis Case

Celeste Fremon at WitnessLA: The Meaning of the Supreme Court's Troy Davis Ruling

Liliana Segura at AlterNet: Breakthrough: Death Row Prisoner Troy Davis to Get New Innocence Hearing

Sharon Kyle at LA Progressive: Troy Davis Update

Adele Azar-Rucquoi at Divine Caroline: Troy Anthony Davis

Only a few months ago, a memoir of injustice and redemption called Picking Cotton was published. Picking Cotton highlights the story of a young woman, Jennifer Thompson-Canino, 23, who, as victim of a violent rape at night, pointed to Ronald Cotton in a line up, swearing he was her rapist. On the basis of that single, emotionally and circumstantially fraught testimony, the court placed Cotton, also 23, in a North Carolina prison, where he languished for eleven years before concrete DNA evidence proved his innocence....

Somehow, these two were destined to model this most difficult of virtues: the act of forgiving. Now, Ronald and Jennifer travel, often together, giving talks and advocating against eye witness-only evidence. More recently, Ronald and Jennifer marched together in the Georgia Community March for Justice for Troy Davis on October 13, 2007.

North Carolina, finally recognizing that too many factors can affect the accuracy of so-called eyewitness accounts, has conceded that such accounts alone are not enough to convict a person. Too many unwarranted factors can influence the accuser....

My prayer is that someday Troy Davis, like me, can sit on a front porch and witness the beauty of a green world so long denied him.

60 Minutes: Eyewitness: How Accurate Is Visual Memory? Lesly Stahl Reports On Flaws In Eyewitness Testimony That Lead To Wrong Convictions

At this link you can watch two video segments which include the powerful story of Ronald Cotton and Jennifer Thompson that Adele Azar-Rucquoi references in the post above.

Dana Hunter at En Tequila Es Verdad: Scalia Sez Putting Innocent People to Death Perfectly Constitutional

BarbinMD at Malarky News: Antonin Scalia: Off With Their Heads

Ian Millhiser at Think Progress: Scalia says there's nothing unconstitutional about executing the innocent.

From Conor Clarke on Andrew Sullivan's blog The Daily Dish at The Atlantic: A "tepid" defense of Antonin Scalia in Why Justice Scalia Wants to Execute the Innocent subsequently re-examined in The Madness of Antonin Scalia, Ctd

Derrick Z. Jackson at The Boston Globe: Clarence Thomas's Cruel View of Prisoners

Harvard Law Review Abstract: Lasting stigma: affirmative action and Clarence Thomas's prisoners' rights jurisprudence

jsmdlawyer at Daily Kos: Prisoner Denied Abortion Rights by Clarence Thomas

David L. Hudson Jr. at First Amendment Center: Justice Thomas and prisoner' freedom of expression

BlogHer CE Maria Niles also blogs at her personal blog PopConsumer

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