(CN) – A death-row inmate who insists he was wrongfully convicted of murdering an off-duty police officer 18 years ago won a new trial Monday after appealing his case to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Troy Anthony Davis has spent a year and half on death row after being identified as the person who shot and killed Georgia security guard Mark MacPhail in 1989. MacPhail was shot twice when he approached Davis and two other men.
Witnesses identified Davis as the shooter at the 1991 trial, but seven of those witnesses have since recanted their testimony.
Davis’ attorneys argued that the recanted testimony, combined with new evidence that another man confessed to the killing, warranted a new trial.
“The substantial risk of putting an innocent man to death clearly provides an adequate justification for holding an evidentiary hearing,” Justice John Paul Stevens wrote in a concurring opinion joined by Justices Ginsburg and Breyer.
The high court ordered the federal judge in George to decide if there’s evidence “that could not have been obtained at the time of trial (that) clearly establishes petitioner’s innocence.”
Justice Scalia dissented, arguing that the majority’s decision to transfer the petition to the federal court “is a confusing exercise that can serve no purpose except to delay the State’s execution of its lawful criminal judgment.”
Scalia called the transfer an “extraordinary step” that hasn’t been taken in nearly 50 years. “Transferring this case to a court that has no power to grant relief is strange enough,” he wrote. “It becomes stranger still when one realizes that the allegedly new evidence we shunt off to be examined by the District Court has already been considered (and rejected) multiple times.”
Justice Stevens countered that Scalia’s dissent, joined by Justice Thomas, makes two incorrect assumptions: that Davis is guilty of the murder, and that the federal judge can’t grant relief.
“[I]magine a petitioner in Davis’ situation who possesses new evidence conclusively and definitely proving, beyond any scintilla of doubt, that he is an innocent man,” Stevens wrote. “The dissent’s reasoning would allow such a petitioner to be put to death nonetheless.”