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Witnesses Recant in GA Death Row Case, Supreme Intervention Sought

By Jonathan Springston, Senior Staff Writer, Atlanta Progressive News (May 08, 2007)

(APN) SAVANNAH – Six of nine non-police witnesses have recanted or changed their testimony over time since 1996 in a Georgia Death Row case, where Troy Anthony Davis of Savannah currently faces execution, but restrictive laws may prevent altered testimony to be considered in court, Atlanta Progressive News has learned.

A law firm representing Mr. Davis, who may have been wrongly accused, filed a writ of certiorari last month with the Supreme Court of the United States, according to a press release obtained from Amnesty International's Southern Regional Office.

Arnold & Porter, LLP, a Washington D.C.-based firm that does pro bono work for habeas corpus death penalty cases, filed the writ on April 11, 2007, on behalf of Davis, who was convicted of killing a police officer well over a decade ago.

Jason Ewart, an attorney with Arnold & Porter who has been working on the case for three years, tells Atlanta Progressive News the Supreme Court could "hear the case themselves and decide point of law or send it back down to the 11th Circuit Court [the last court to hear the case] and say, 'you are not finished yet.'"

The Davis Case

Davis was sentenced to death row 15 years ago after a jury convicted him for the murder of a police officer in Savannah, Georgia. Since the initial trial, most of the witnesses have now recanted or contradicted their initial testimony.

"A majority of the prosecutors' witnesses were under pressure even though they were uncertain," Laura Moye, Deputy Director of Amnesty International USA's Southern Regional Office, said in an interview. "Some didn't even witness what happened."

Because there was no physical evidence and the murder weapon was never found, the prosecution built their entire case on witness testimony.

"The cops had nothing," Moye said. "Because [their case] could not hold water, they started to coerce witnesses [and] they tried to peg two other crimes on Troy."

Davis was convicted for another shooting and beating that happened the same night but testimony and evidence for both appeared shaky too.

"It was a high profile crime in Savannah at the time," Moye said. "The media circus increased pressure on the witnesses" to implicate Davis.

Only one member of the 12-member jury said that he had not known anything about the case prior to his selection to the jury, according to a report on Davis's case compiled by Amnesty International USA.

"They paraded Troy as the murderer before there's any kind of conviction," Moye said. "The whole family was made out to look like criminals."

New and changed testimony

Amnesty International USA's report on Davis outlines in detail what each witness said originally and what their stories later became.

Witnesses became confused over what color clothing the killer wore, admitted they only heard shots fired and not who fired them, or admitted police coerced them.

One witness claimed to have seen Davis commit the crime, which happened at night in a poorly lit Burger King parking lot, while she was at a hotel across the street. Ewart said the hotel is across the street but at a long distance from the Burger King parking lot.

She instead later said she heard shots but could not see the gunman.

"It took a while for [the circus] to settle down before people risked stepping forward," Moye said.

New and changed testimony appears to implicate Sylvester Coles, one of three witnesses from the original trial who has not recanted or changed his testimony. Nine witnesses have now signed affidavits implicating Coles.

Moye tells Atlanta Progressive News of one witness, Coles's neighbor, who was told to hide two guns in an abandoned house and to keep quiet or something bad would happen to her. She did not testify about this at the initial Davis trial out of fear of what would happen.

"What is unfortunate is the new evidence has not really been reviewed because of new laws that limit what can be reviewed," Moye said. "Courts are reluctant to hear new cases."

Amnesty International USA's report on Davis lists 14 cases since 1976 where wrongly accused death row inmates were set free after it was revealed that witness testimony was unreliable, some of it due to police coercion.

In light of all this new information, Amnesty International USA has started an international letter-writing campaign asking people to send letters to the Georgia State Board of Pardons and Paroles asking they grant clemency for Davis should the Supreme Court deny his appeal request.

"Why would you send someone to the gurney under such doubts?" Moye asked. "I think the system is interested in self-preservation rather than allowing innocents to be revealed."

Supreme Court the last hope?

The Supreme Court typically makes a decision within one to six months of the filing date to hear appeals like this, Moye said.

Ewart could not say for sure what the chances are the Court would hear this case, but said, "Chances are never good when you appeal to the Supreme Court."

Moye and Ewart told APN the Supreme Court could be Davis's last hope.

If the Supreme Court decides not to hear the case, or not to review it and send it back to the 11th Circuit Court for further review, then the clock begins ticking.

"The judge in the county where the trial happened has the ability to issue a death warrant," Moye said. The date of execution in Georgia can be set as soon as two weeks after the warrant is issued.

"The lawyers are allowed a clemency hearing before the State Board of Pardons and Paroles," she continued. "[The Board] could decide to commute the sentence or any number of things to stop the execution."

Ewart told APN the Georgia State Board of Pardons and Paroles is highly unlikely to commute a sentence.

"We want the execution to stop," Moye said. She added it is important for Georgia residents make their voices heard.

"The evidence must be examined," Jared Feuer, director of Amnesty International USA's Southern Regional Office, said in a press release. "Georgia must not make a tragic and irreparable mistake by executing Troy Davis."

"No courts have looked at the new evidence," Ewart said. "The release we would like is to have our day in court."

About the author:

Jonathan Springston is a Senior Staff Writer for Atlanta Progressive News and may be reached at jonathan@atlantaprogressivenews.com.

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This article may be reprinted in full at no cost where Atlanta Progressive News is credited.

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