United States Supreme Court Orders Hearing on Innocence Claim in Georgia Death Penalty Case


On August 17, 2009, the United States Supreme Court, in an unusual and important mid-summer action, ordered a federal district court to hold a hearing and determine whether new evidence shows that death row inmate Troy Davis is actually innocent.

Troy Davis was convicted and sentenced to death for the 1989 killing of an off-duty Savannah police officer. Seven of the State’s witnesses have since recanted the testimony they gave at trial, and several other people have implicated the State’s key witness as the actual shooter. Mr. Davis produced 20 postconviction affidavits “that, if reliable, would satisfy the threshold showing for a truly persuasive demonstration of actual innocence,” according to Justice Stevens.

Despite this evidence, no state or federal court conducted a hearing to assess its reliability. Justice Stevens, joined by Justices Ginsburg and Breyer, concluded that the “substantial risk of putting an innocent man to death clearly provides an adequate justification for holding an evidentiary hearing.”

The Court issued an order instructing the federal district court to “receive testimony and make findings of fact as to whether evidence that could not have been obtained at the time of trial clearly establishes [Davis’] innocence.”

In a dissent joined by Justice Thomas, Justice Scalia argued that a hearing about innocence should not be held because the Court “has never held that the Constitution forbids the execution of a convicted defendant who has had a full and fair trial but is later able to convince a habeas court that he is ‘actually’ innocent.” Justice Scalia conceded that whether it is unconstitutional to execute a person who has had a fair or error-free trial remains an open question, but argued the Court should answer that question itself without first sending the case to the lower federal courts.

In Alabama, seven death row inmates have been exonerated.