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Court declines to hear death-row appeal

Troy Davis, a Georgia inmate, asked for a new trial after seven witnesses recanted their testimony.

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Courts set a high standard to overturn a conviction and grant a new trial. A convict must present new evidence that had never been introduced at the trial, and it must be evidence strong enough to suggest the original verdict was wrong.

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The issue in the Davis case is whether judges considering Davis's motion for a new trial should have granted him a hearing to allow an examination of his affidavits and other evidence.

The Georgia Supreme Court ruled 4 to 3 against granting Davis such a hearing. In reaching that result, the majority justices analyzed the affidavits and said they were unconvinced of Davis's innocence.

In contrast, the three dissenting justices concluded that the court was setting the bar too high in cases involving claims of actual innocence. All that had to be demonstrated, the dissenting justices said, was that the new evidence taken as a whole would create the probability of a different outcome if a new trial were held.

To do that, Davis's lawyers didn't have to prove his innocence, according to the dissenting justices. His lawyers just had to show that a reasonable doubt remained about whether he was the shooter. Even if a new jury might still find Davis guilty, the new testimony could create enough doubt to prevent imposition of the death penalty, the dissenting justices said.

The 1989 shooting took place at about 1 a.m. outside a Burger King near the bus station in Savannah.

Davis, Sylvester "Red" Coles, and a teenager were threatening a homeless man who refused to share his beer with them. At one point, Davis struck the homeless man in the head. Amid the commotion, an off-duty police officer who was still in his police uniform arrived on the scene. Davis ran. The police officer took chase. At some point, shots were fired and the officer fell to the pavement. Witnesses said Davis walked back to the police officer and shot him again at close range. One witness said Davis was smiling as he fired.

Davis disputes these facts. He says Mr. Coles shot the police officer. Coles says Davis was the shooter.

The "new" witness affidavits were gathered by Davis's lawyers in 1996 and between 2000 and 2002.

The affidavits include statements by two individuals recanting their earlier testimony that Davis had admitted independently to them that he had killed the police officer. Affidavits from three other individuals say that Coles had admitted to each of them independently that he killed the police officer, not Davis. In addition, there are several affidavits from eyewitnesses who had identified Davis as the shooter but who later said they couldn't be sure who the shooter was because the crime scene was dark and confusing.

The majority justices on the Georgia Supreme Court said they were not impressed by the affidavits, which they found to be vague and subject to differing interpretations.

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