A federal judge in Georgia on Tuesday upheld the murder conviction of death row inmate Troy Davis after a special evidentiary hearing ordered by the US Supreme Court to determine whether he is innocent.
The high court took the unusual step of directing the federal judge to conduct a reexamination of the case after Mr. Davis and his lawyers presented affidavits claiming that seven of nine trial witnesses had recanted their testimony.
Davis was convicted and sentenced to die for the 1989 shooting death of Savannah Police Officer Mark MacPhail.
The death-penalty case attracted international attention amid claims that an innocent man was about to be executed.
US District Judge William Moore held a hearing on the issue on June 24. On Tuesday, the judge issued a 174-page order concluding that Davis is guilty.
“This court concludes that executing an innocent person would violate the Eighth Amendment,” the judge wrote. “However, Mr. Davis is not innocent.”
The judge said Davis’s new evidence – including the recantations – did not change the balance of proof offered at trial. “While Mr. Davis’s new evidence casts some additional, minimal doubt on his conviction, it is largely smoke and mirrors,” Judge Moore wrote.
Davis’s case has been considered at every level of the state and federal court system. At each stage, his conviction has been upheld. But last year, with an execution date approaching, Davis’s lawyers asked the Supreme Court to examine the issue.
One witness claimed that he lied at trial when he testified that he heard Davis admit to the killing. One witness said he had heard another man admit to the shooting. Others raised questions about the color of Davis’s shirt on the night of the crime.
Rather than hear the case, the high court transferred it back to a federal judge with instructions 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 [Mr. Davis’s] innocence.”
In his order, Moore said that Davis vastly overstated the value of his evidence of innocence. “The burden was on Mr. Davis to prove, by clear and convincing evidence, that no reasonable juror would have convicted him in light of the new evidence,” the judge said.
He concluded in part: “The vast majority of evidence at trial remains intact, and the new evidence is largely not credible or lacking in probative value. After careful consideration, the court finds that Mr. Davis has failed to make a showing of actual innocence.”
At issue in the trial – and the evidentiary hearing – was whether Davis was the person who assaulted a homeless man outside a Burger King restaurant and then gunned down Mr. MacPhail when he attempted to intervene. MacPhail was off duty at the time and working as a security guard.
State prosecutors relied on eyewitness testimony to build much of their case against Davis. But not everyone had a clear view of the shooting that took place just after 1 a.m. in a parking lot.
The judge examined each of the seven recantations and concluded that only one was entirely credible. But, he said, the credible recantation came from a witness whose earlier trial testimony was “patently false” and was thus not important to the conviction.
“Not all recantations are created equal,” Moore said.
Two other witnesses, he said, had offered recantations that were partly credible. But their testimony would “only minimally diminish the state’s case,” he said.
The other four recantations did not diminish the state’s case against Davis at all, the judge said, because a reasonable juror would disregard the recantation rather than jettison the earlier testimony.