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Justice trumps the law in this death case

In the end, after all the whereases and ipsos and factos and habeases and corpuses, isn't the whole idea of the criminal justice system to make sure the folks who are behind bars deserve to be behind bars? And if the state is going to kill somebody, uh, shouldn't they actually be guilty of the crime for which they are about to forfeit their life?

Sorry for being a nitpicker.

But according to U.S. Supreme Court Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas, potential evidence exonerating Georgia death row inmate Troy Davis isn't enough to not carry out the sentence.

What would we call this? Death by glitch?

In the absence of a murder weapon, or fingerprints or DNA evidence, Davis, who has steadfastly maintained his innocence, was sentenced to death for the 1989 murder of Savannah police Officer Mark MacPhail, largely based on the testimony of nine witnesses who implicated him in the crime.

Over the years, the case against Davis had steadily withered as seven of the original "witnesses" recanted their testimony, while others came forward providing exculpatory information in the defendant's favor. Indeed, the ninth "witness" against Davis has emerged as a more likely prime suspect in the killing.

Now you would think even Joe Pesci's bumbling lawyer in My Cousin Vinny would have been able to win a new trial for Davis, except for one nagging quirk in the law. According to a 1996 statute, "The Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act," petitioners like Davis are barred from seeking relief in the federal appellate system by presenting new evidence supporting a claim of innocence.

Well, you have to admit, if you are trying to speed up the pace of executions it certainly would help to start offing people, regardless of their guilt or innocence, by denying them a chance to make a case for themselves.

And since lower courts have already ruled that technically speaking — aside from the possibility Davis may not have actually murdered MacPhail — the trial was a bureaucratic thing of beauty.

Former Florida Supreme Court Justice Rosemary Barkett, who now sits on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit, has called this roadblock to Davis in pressing for a rehearing on his death sentence, a "thicket of procedural brambles." And — finally — the high court agreed.

Led by Justice John Paul Stevens, the Supreme Court this week ordered a federal judge to review Davis' claim of innocence and consider whether new evidence, which has arisen since the original trial and sentence, would have changed the outcome.

Alas, the court's radical decision to engage in a prima facie case of empathy, royally wadded the robes of Scalia and Thomas. They argued in dissent that allowing Davis a chance to demonstrate he wasn't a cop-killer was a "fool's errand" as well as a "confusing exercise that can serve no purpose except to delay the state's execution of its lawful criminal judgment."

There is nothing confusing about tempering society's call for vengeance with fair-mindedness.

One has to wonder if either Scalia or Thomas found themselves wrongly convicted of murder in an otherwise flawless trial and were facing the death penalty whether they would insist on moving forward with their own execution even though they had fresh evidence proving their innocence because too much time had passed to vindicate them?

Stevens, joined by Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer, and at least two other unnamed justices (newbie Justice Sonia Sotomayor did not participate) noted the substantial risk of putting a potentially innocent man to death. They trumped all the other legal mumbo-jumbo, thus warranting a new evidentiary hearing for Davis.

Since 1973, according to the Death Penalty Information Center, 135 death row inmates have been exonerated, including 23 prisoners from Florida. Georgia has had at least five condemned men freed from death row. Mistakes do happen. Justice is not always served, especially if Antonin Scalia and his Ed McMahon of Mandamus, Clarence Thomas, have anything to say about it.

Should Troy Davis be executed, he'll be dead an awfully long time. Giving him a new day in court to ensure the right defendant is being put to death seems a relatively small price to pay for the sake of due process, for the sake of common sense, for the sake of doing the right thing.

And if Davis is found to be innocent and freed from jail, won't Scalia and Thomas, feel like a couple of oafs?

Probably not. They'll be too busy counting the strawberries in the Supreme Court cafeteria.

Justice trumps the law in this death case 08/20/09 [Last modified: Friday, August 21, 2009 2:58pm]

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