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Did Troy Davis death-penalty case expose flaws in 'executive clemency'?

The Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles stood firmly behind the 1991 murder conviction that put Troy Davis on death row. But the many doubts in the case have raised questions about 'executive clemency' as a fail-safe for the death penalty.

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In an indication of the seriousness of the doubts about the case, the US Supreme Court in 2009 transferred Davis's writ of habeas corpus, or request for relief from unlawful imprisonment, to a US District Court – the first time it had granted such a request in half a century. Two dissenting justices, Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas, called the ruling a "fool's errand."

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The federal judge assigned to the case, Judge William T. Moore of the US District Court of Southern Georgia, concluded in 2010 that new evidence and testimony, including that 7 of 9 witnesses had changed or recanted testimony, wasn't enough to prove his innocence. “The state’s case may not be ironclad, [but] most reasonable jurors would again vote to convict Mr. Davis," Judge Moore wrote in his ruling.

In 1993, the US Supreme Court ruled in Herrera v. Collins that an individual’s provable innocence isn't, by constitutional standards, enough for courts to grant a new trial. The ruling put the onus on discretionary state-by-state executive clemency procedures – whether by extrajudicial boards or governors – as the "fail-safe."

"I really think that the decision made in Georgia puts the assumption that executive clemency is a fail-safe in so much doubt that it ought to stimulate the legal system … to revise, reform, revisit the formal legal process that results in convictions and allows sentences of death," says SUNY-Albany’s Mr. Acker. "In this case, the clemency process has failed."

The Georgia parole board noted that it has commuted three death sentences since 2000, and said in a statement that its five members "considered the totality of the evidence" and that members "have not taken their responsibility lightly."

The family of the slain police officer, Mark MacPhail, said that Davis and his family had duped people into believing in his innocence. "We know what the truth is," MacPhail's widow, Joan MacPhail-Harris, told CNN. "And for someone to ludicrously say that he is a victim – we are victims. Look at us. We have put up with this stuff for 22 years. It's time for justice. We need our justice."

But others believe Davis's claims of innocence and the substantial doubts about whether a jury today would find him guilty present the US with a moral quandary that could reflect more broadly on the death penalty.

"At its core, I think this case represents a serious moral issue," Rev. Raphael Warnock of the Ebenezer Baptist Church told the Christian Post. "If we're able to execute a man with this much doubt, that is not good for our moral health."

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