WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court on Monday took the rare step of ordering a federal judge to consider the innocence claims of condemned Georgia prisoner Troy Anthony Davis, who has mounted a global campaign to declare he was wrongfully convicted of murder and barred by federal law from presenting evidence to prove it.
The court interrupted its summer recess to order a hearing to see "whether evidence that could not have been obtained at the time of trial clearly establishes" Davis's innocence.
Davis has come close to execution several times since he was convicted of the 1989 killing of off-duty Savannah police officer Mark Allen MacPhail.
The case has spawned a national and international following, intense interest from Amnesty International and the NAACP and support from Pope Benedict XVI, former President Jimmy Carter and Archbishop Desmond Tutu, among others.
Monday's court decision comes amid complaints from federal judges that a law passed by Congress in 1996 to streamline the death penalty appeals process keeps them from getting to questions of innocence.
In Davis's case, Judge Rosemary Barkett of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit criticized the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act's "thicket of procedural brambles," as well as her court's decision that the law barred Davis from presenting newfound evidence.
Davis's attorneys filed a petition directly with the Supreme Court after lower federal courts said that, because he could point to no constitutional defects in the trial he received, he could not now present new evidence.
Davis says that since his trial, seven of Georgia's nine key witnesses have recanted testimony against him. He claims the man who was the main witness against him was the shooter.
Justice Antonin Scalia objected to the court's decision to order a new hearing, an "extraordinary step" he said the court had not taken in nearly 50 years. Joined by Justice Clarence Thomas, he called the action a "fool's errand" and a "confusing exercise that can serve no purpose except to delay the state's execution of its lawful criminal judgment."
Justice John Paul Stevens, who countered Scalia's dissent in an opinion joined by Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer, said the "substantial risk of putting an innocent man to death clearly provides an adequate justification for holding an evidentiary hearing."
Newly installed Justice Sonia Sotomayor did not take part.
The judgments of the other three justices — Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Anthony Kennedy and Samuel Alito — were not indicated in the court's order, although presumably at least two agreed with the decision to order the hearing.