Posted by Thomas Nephew on 19th August 2009
As Nell mentions in a comment at the prior post, there’s great and surprising news: Troy Davis, who faces the death penalty in Georgia for the murder of a Savannah policeman that he may well not have committed, gets another bite at the apple after all. The New York Times reported yesterday that the Supreme Court ordered a federal trial court to consider Davis’s case, with a view to “whether new evidence clearly established Mr. Davis’s innocence.”
This site, many others (especially Mick Arran’s), and Amnesty International have all rehearsed the grounds to believe that Davis is innocent — in the colloquial sense — of the crime he was convicted for. Seven of nine witnesses against him have recanted their testimony, citing police pressure to identify Davis as the killer; one of the other two is a prime alternative suspect; no physical evidence ties Davis to the murder.
What seems to be at issue is whether this amounts to enough to reconsider (let alone overturn) the verdict of a criminal trial. But what is really at issue is whether Congress can force the judicial branch — in this case, through the 1996 “Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act” (AEDPA) — to blindly follow its rules in determining that, or instead hold…
- that a claim of innocence is cognizable constitutional claim,
- that the Constitution forbids the execution of an actually innocent person, and
- that habeas relief must be available to an actually innocent person.
…to re-list my own summary of the issues dissenting judge Rosemary Barkett identified in the last hearing of this case. While overturning a guilty verdict reached via due process is and should be difficult to do, it seems to me ignoring the all but complete collapse of a case should be difficult to do as well — even after a verdict.
To repeat the charge to the district court, the Supreme Court ruling states that “[t]he District Court should receive testimony and make findings of fact as to whether evidence that could not have been obtained at the time of trial clearly establishes petitioner’s innocence” (emphases added).
It seems to me this is a more hopeful situation than either Mick Arran or Robert (in another comment at the prior post) suppose it to be. While the framing of the question would seem to turn the usual presumption of innocence on its head (as Robert notes), it at least doesn’t necessarily change the definition of legal innocence, which remains “guilt not proven beyond a reasonable doubt.”