Supreme Court: Troy Davis Gets Evidentiary Hearing

By Caleb Groos on August 17, 2009 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

Georgia death row inmate Troy Anthony Davis got a win today from the US Supreme Court. The Court ordered an evidentiary hearing on Davis' claim that he is innocent of the murder of a Savannah police officer in 1989. The case may force clarification of federal courts' power to intervene in state court convictions based on claims of actual innocence, rather than an improper trial.

In 1991, Troy Davis was convicted of murdering off duty Savannah police officer Mark Allen MacPhail. MacPhail was shot as he attempted to aid a man being beaten in a Burger King parking lot. Davis was at the scene of the skirmish; however, he has always claimed that another man -- Sylvester "Redd" Coles -- was the shooter.

No physical evidence connected Davis to the murder. His conviction was based in large part on the testimony of nine eye witnesses, including Redd Coles, who initially fingered Davis. Seven of those eye witnesses have since recanted their testimony.

So what does today's Supreme Court order mean? For Troy Davis, it means a federal hearing to determine whether evidence unavailable at the time of trial clearly establishes his innocence.

Though Davis' case, like most death penalty appeals, has a long and complicated history, it now poses a question that can be stated simply, but will perhaps be more difficult to answer: Can federal courts do anything if someone convicted in state court can prove actual innocence, but can't prove that their trial was unconstitutional?

Today's ruling came in response to Davis' petition for habeas corpus. Under the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 (AEDPA), petitions for habeas corpus are not to be granted to those convicted by state courts unless the state court proceeding violated clearly established federal law.

As shown in today's majority and dissenting opinions, there are multiple ways this could play out.

According to Justice Scalia and Justice Clarence Thomas, the federal court can do nothing if there was no violation of federal law in Davis' trial and conviction.

According to the majority, however, the AEDPA might be found not to apply (either to claims of actual innocence, or to habeas petitions filed directly with the Supreme Court). Or, the execution of an innocent person, in and of itself, could constitute a constitutional violation and allow federal intervention.

While even this brief summary may sound dry, the ultimate question is vital to Troy Davis and others on death row. Can federal courts do anything for inmates whose conviction was not due to an unconstitutional trial, but was simply wrong?

This question won't be answered until after Davis' evidentiary hearing. If that federal judge finds persuasive evidence of innocence, then the question of what federal courts can do about it will likely run its way back up to the Supreme Court.

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