After several weeks of dicking around, the Supreme Court has sent Troy Davis’ case back to Georgia.
Davis has spent 18 years on death row for the 1989 slaying of Savannah, Ga., police officer Mark MacPhail. Davis’ attorneys insist that he is innocent and deserves a new trial because several witnesses at his trial have recanted their testimony.The high court ordered a federal judge in Georgia to determine whether there is evidence ”that could not have been obtained at the time of trial (that) clearly establishes petitioner’s innocence.”
Defense lawyers had appealed to the Supreme Court after a federal court denied a new trial request in April.
”The substantial risk of putting an innocent man to death clearly provides an adequate justification for holding an evidentiary hearing,” said Justice John Paul Stevens, writing for the court. Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer concurred with Stevens.
They could have ordered a new trial on the basis of witnesses claiming they’d been intimidated by police during the original investigation, but they didn’t. Instead, they’ve ordered a Federal judge to see – and this is the critical language in the decision – if there’s any new evidence that “could not have been obtained at the time of trial“. Whether a new trial will be granted, then, rests on whether or not the judge will consider the recantation of potentially perjured testimony on the part of witnesses coerced by police to be “new evidence”. The Georgia courts have already said it is NOT. The Federal appeals court said it is NOT. That doesn’t mean the Federal judge who gets the assignment has to accept their interpretation. S/he could just as easily – and for much better reason – consider the new depositions given by witness as “evidentiary” and decidedly “new”. Even then, the sticking point is the rest of the sentence (the phrase italicized above). The evidence was cooked. The Savannah police essentially coerced the witnesses to say they saw things they didn’t see and then pressured them to perjure themselves, a reality no one in this process has been willing to admit. Clearly, that evidence is tainted but that isn’t the issue the SCOTUS addressed. They want the judge to check for new evidence and the only new evidence is that the old evidence was bogus.
Even that much – the absolute minimum the Court could have done to correct the situation – was too much for Fat Tony and his Pot Boy.
Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas objected to the court’s decision Monday, calling it a “fool’s errand.”
“Petitioner’s claim is a sure loser,” wrote Scalia. “Transferring his petition to the [federal] District Court is a confusing exercise that can serve no purpose except to delay the state’s execution of its lawful criminal judgment.”
So even though Judge Stephens left the District Court a hole big enough to ram a Hummer through, Fat Tony sees no reason to give any judgment at all. To Fat Tony & Friends, if the cops say you did it you’re guilty even if the witnesses were told by the police to lie because they couldn’t prove the case otherwise. Yet sending it back to the Georgia DC is the weakest possible response.
Still, if the District Court does its job there is a chance, slim though it might be, that justice will be done after all, and that’s worth a (restrained) Hurrah all by itself.