Both the LA Times and the New York Times have interpretive stories on the significance of yesterday’s Supreme Court decision that will allow death row inmate, Troy Davis, to present in court evidence that he and his lawyers believe will exonerate him.
This is a significant case, and one that looked all but lost for quite some time.
Here is the opening of the story by the NY time’s Adam Liptak:
The Supreme Court on Monday ordered a federal trial court in Georgia to consider the case of Troy Davis, who is on death row in state prison there for the 1989 murder of an off-duty police officer. The case has attracted international attention, and 27 former prosecutors and judges had filed a brief supporting Mr. Davis.
Seven of the witnesses against Mr. Davis have recanted, and several people have implicated the prosecution’s main witness as the actual killer of the officer, Mark MacPhail.
The Supreme Court’s decision was unsigned, only a paragraph long and in a number of respects highly unusual. It instructed the trial court to “receive testimony and make findings of fact” about whether new evidence clearly established Mr. Davis’s innocence.Justice Sonia Sotomayor, who joined the court this month, did not participate.
The decision set off a sharp debate between Justices John Paul Stevens and Antonin Scalia about Supreme Court procedure, the reach of a federal law meant to limit death row appeals and the proper treatment of claims of innocence.
“The substantial risk of putting an innocent man to death,” Justice Stevens wrote in a concurrence joined by Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen G. Breyer, “clearly provides an adequate justification for holding an evidentiary hearing.”
But Antonin Scalia thought otherwise:
“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 â€˜actually’ innocent.”
It is a creepy and rather chilling point of view, but arguably legally correct [as the rest of the story details]. And it is precisely the legal and moral ambiguity that makes this case so interesting.
You can read the rest here.
Meanwhile, the LA Times has a similar take on the case’s significance:
Legal experts were taken aback by the rare move, which came during the court’s typically sleepy summer recess. A number of experts said it could indicate that the federal justice system may be loosening its conservative position toward death penalty appeals.
Federal court rulings in recent years had been making it harder for inmates to win writs of habeas corpus, or pleas for their release. Congress also raised the bar in 1996 with the Anti-terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act, passed in the wake of the Oklahoma City bombing.
But the increasing prevalence of DNA evidence is changing some minds.
“I think we’re in a new day, and there’s obviously a split,” said Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, a nonprofit in Washington that has been critical of the application of the death penalty.
Okay, but here’s the really important part.
Davis’ last-ditch appeal to the high court rested on a claim of “actual innocence” – that is, an appeal based on evidence that purportedly shows he did not commit the crime, as opposed to an argument based on an unconstitutional flaw in his prosecution.
The Supreme Court has never determined whether an execution can be barred because an inmate proved actual innocence.
In other words, the court was fine about staying an execution because either the prosecution did something wrong or because the inmate’s defense was inadequate…..but this “actual innocence” thingy? Nah. They didn’t do, like, actual, no-kidding, this-guy-really-didn’t-do-it variety innocence.
Well, it appears that Monday’s decision may be paving the way for a much needed change.
The courts opinion and the dissent may be found here.
UPDATE: Although newly minted Justice Sotomayor did not vote in the Davis ruling, which was 6-2, she did vote for a last minute stay of execution on Tuesday, but was in the minority. The rejected stay was for an Ohio hit man where there was no issue of innocence. The stay was based on the fact that his fellow murder-for-hire conspirators were not slated for lethal injection, while he was. The Ohio Parole Board recommended the stay, but Governor Ted Strickland disagreed. The Supremes agreed 5-4 with Strickland.
I’d have liked to have heard that argument. Even as a life-long death penalty opponent, on first bounce, I found the fairness angle unpersuasive.
Yes, this report on the parole board’s reasoning does make the case more compelling. Yet, while the outcome for Jason Getsy, who by now has been executed, is indeed not fair, when viewed within the context of the other sentences, particularly the man who ordered the killing, I’m at all convinced that the notion of “fairness”—meaning the other guy had a better lawyer or a more lenient jury—is a valid legal argument, as along as Mr. Getsy’s representation was adequate.