Daily Archives: August 20, 2009

The Troy Davis Conundrum (Updated)

Thomas Nephew at newsrack thinks there may be more hope in the Supreme Court’s language than I do, and he has a point.

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.”

On that score, Mick suggests that “[w]hether 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”.” But while Mick is right that “the only new evidence is that the old evidence was bogus,” … that might be good enough.  That’s because the Court didn’t actually ask for “new” evidence, it asked for evidence that couldn’t have been obtained at the time; absent mind reading skills, of course perjured testimony can’t be recognized as such at the time.

So it seems to me a district court may reasonably follow this decision’s instructions and find that seven of nine pillars of the prosecution’s case have been washed away, establishing reasonable doubt and legal innocence; the Court seems to emphasize that in this case, at least, it is incorrect to “[assume] as a matter of fact that petitioner Davis is guilty of the murder of Officer MacPhail … even though seven of the State’s key witnesses have recanted their trial testimony.” But enough of my Perry Mason impression.  For better informed analyses of the legal implications, see publius and Lee Kovarsky (at ‘Obsidian Wings’), bmaz (at ‘emptywheel’), Josh Patashnik at The New Republic, and/or Lyle Denniston (at ‘SCOTUSBlog’).

I’m not now saying – and wasn’t originally – that Thomas’ interpretation is inaccurate. It isn’t. But I should perhaps have made myself clearer for those living outside Georgia: it isn’t the legal meaning of the language I’m concerned with so much as I am concerned about the way it can be interpreted by people looking for an excuse to end this case.

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