New Evidence in Troy Davis Case

New evidence in the Troy Davis case in Georgia has recently emerged, further implicating another suspect in the murder of off-duty police officer Mark Allen MacPhail. In 1991, Davis was sentenced to death for officer MacPhail's murder. Davis became the primary suspect after Sylvester "Redd" Coles told the police about Davis's presence at the crime scene. During his 1991 trial, nine prosecution eyewitnesses testified against Davis. All but two of the witnesses (one of whom is Coles) have recanted their testimony.  The new testimony was provided by Quiana Glover, who was at a friend's house when she said Coles admitted to killing MacPhail. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution quoted her affidavit as stating that Coles knew the murder was being falsely attributed to Davis instead of himself.  In August 2009, the U.S. Supreme Court issued an historic order, continuing Davis's stay of execution and instructing a federal District Court judge in Savannah to hold an evidentiary hearing to decide whether Davis's new evidence clearly establishes his innocence.

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Legal Scholar Calls Withdrawal of Model Penal Code a "Quiet Blockbuster"

Franklin E. Zimring is a distinguished professor of law and scholar at the Berkeley School of Law who has followed the development of the modern death penalty over many decades.  Writing recently in the National Law Journal, Prof. Zimring said the recent action by the American Law Institute to withdraw the death penalty provisions  from its Model Penal Code deprives the punishment of any legal legitimacy.  "[T]he institute has pulled the intellectual rug out from under the current system of deciding between life and death," he wrote. Recalling that when the Supreme Court stopped the death penalty in Furman v. Georgia in 1972, he noted many states turned to the Model Penal Code to fashion new death penalty laws that the Court would accept.  But that model has now been discredited.  "Now that the creators of the modern system of death penalty sentencing have disowned that system, there is no support for distinguishing the current death penalty lottery from the lawless system that Furman condemned. The apparatus that the Supreme Court rushed to embrace in 1976 has been exposed as a conspicuous failure."

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ARTICLES: "Selective Empathy" at Issue in Recent Supreme Court Opinion

Linda Greenhouse, former Supreme Court writer for the New York Times, recently wrote about the reversal of a death sentence by the U. S. Supreme Court. The Court overturned George Porter Jr.'s death sentence because of the inadequate representation he received and the powerful mitigating evidence in Mr. Porter's life that his attorney failed to investigate and present to the jury considering his client's life.  The Court's opinion noted, "Our nation has a long tradition of according leniency to veterans in recognition of their service, especially for those who fought on the front lines as Porter did." Ms. Greenhouse's article contrasted this ruling with one handed down last month in the case of Robert J. Van Hook, who also claimed inadequate counsel. In his case, the Court overtuned a federal appeals court's grant of relief, concluding that Van Hook's lawyer made "professionally reasonable" decisions regarding his case. Van Hook was also a military veteran, and like Porter, was also a product of a violent and abusive childhood.

Greenwood writes, "Setting the Porter and the Van Hook cases side by side, what strikes me is how similarly horrific the two men’s childhoods were - indeed, how common such childhoods were among the hundreds of death-row inmates… It is fanciful to suppose that each of these defendants had lawyers who made the effort to dig up the details and offer these sorry life stories to the jurors who would weigh their fate. I don’t make that observation to excuse the crimes of those on death row, but only to underscore the anomaly of the mercy the court bestowed…on one of that number."  Read the full article below.

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Supreme Court Justices Disagree About Lengthy Time on Death Row

Justices John Paul Stevens and Clarence Thomas disagreed over whether to grant a stay of execution to Cecil Johnson, Jr., who was was convicted of murder in a 1980 shooting at a convenience store in Tennessee. Johnson had been on death row for nearly three decades. Justice Stevens said this lengthy time between his sentencing and execution could amount to cruel and unusual punishment: "[T]he delay itself subjects death row inmates to decades of especially severe, dehumanizing conditions of confinement," especially when most of the delay was caused by the state. Justice Breyer concurred with Stevens.  Both Justices have long urged their colleagues to address the issue of the extensive time inmates spend on death row.

Justice Thomas reacted strongly to Stevens's assertion, claiming that "as long as our system affords capital defendants the procedural safeguards this court has long endorsed, defendants who avail themselves of these procedures will face the delays Justice Stevens laments."

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U.S. Supreme Court Reverses Death Sentence Citing Veteran's War Trauma

On November 30, the United States Supreme Court overturned the death sentence of George Porter, a Korean War veteran from Florida who had been convicted of murder in 1988. The Court stated that Porter's trial lawyer failed to investigate and present ample mitigating evidence, including the fact that Porter's battle service in the war left him severely traumatized.  The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit had held that such evidence would not have made a difference at sentencing. The Supreme Court accepted Porter's petition and without dissent issued its opinion the same day, stating, "Petitioner George Porter is a veteran who was both wounded and decorated for his active participation in two major engagements during the Korean War; his combat service unfortunately left him a traumatized, changed man. His commanding officer’s moving description of those two battles was only a fraction of the mitigating evidence that his counsel failed to discover or present during the penalty phase of his trial in 1988."

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Subject of Famous Supreme Court Decision Has Made a New Life

James Tyrone Woodson's death sentence was overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1976 because the jury had not been allowed to consider any mitigating factors in his life or about his peripheral role in the crime.  The Court not only rejected Woodson's death sentence, but held that a mandatory death penalty system was unconstitutional.  Woodson had been convicted in 1974 of first-degree murder, which was automatically punishable by the death penalty under North Carolina law. Woodson had been in a car during the robbery and murder, and he maintained that he was threatened to assist with the robbery.  Woodson and 120  other death row inmates' lives were spared because of the Supreme Court ruling.  He eventually became eligible for parole and was released in 1993.  Since his release, Woodson has led a crime-free life. He used to be the kitchen manager at the Raleigh Rescue Mission. He now has a job in Raleigh and preaches at Wake Correctional Center.  "You have to want to change. Nobody can make you change," he said recently about his work helping others. He continued, "There's a choice in the matter in life itself.  Do you want to live? Do you want to be helpful to another individual because you've been helped?"

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Supreme Court Decides One Capital Case and Agrees to Hear Another

On November 16, the United States Supreme Court accepted for review and handed down a per curiam decision in Wong v. Belmontes (No. 08-1263). The Court reinstated Fernando Belmontes' death sentence and overturned the decision of the Ninth Circuit granting relief because of ineffectiveness of counsel. Belmontes was sentenced to death for murdering a woman during a robbery in 1981 in California. The appeals court ruled in 2008 that Belmontes' lawyer had represented him incompetently by neglecting to introduce evidence of family strife and depression that would have likely led to a different sentence. The Supreme Court assumed that the attorney should have presented more evidence but concluded it would not have made any difference in sentencing.  Justice Stevens issued a concurring opinion stating that he believed the Supreme Court had erred in a previous consideration of this same case.

On the same day, the Court agreed to hear Magwood v. Culliver (No. 09-158).  Billy Joe Magwood received a death sentence for killing a sheriff in 1979 in Alabama.  At the time, Alabama law required two conditions before the state could sentence a defendant to death, only one of which was satisfied by Magwood's crime.  Magwood's death sentence was overturned on other grounds in 1985, and he was resentenced to death the next year.  However, it was not until 1997 that Magwood's lawyers challenged whether his crime was death-eligible under Alabama law.  Alabama claims Magwood took too long to raise this argument and his appeal is barred by the Anti-terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act, which imposes strict limits on successive federal habeas corpus petitions. The Eleventh Circuit agreed.  Magwood claims that he is bringing his claim under his new death sentence and therefore is not barred by AEDPA.

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U.S. Supreme Court Restores Death Sentence for Ohio Inmate

On November 9, the U.S. Supreme Court granted certiorari in the case of Bobby v. Van Hook (No. 09–144) and issued a per curiam opinion overturning a panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit, which had granted Robert Van Hook a new sentencing hearing based on ineffectiveness of counsel.  Van Hook had been convicted and sentenced to death for a murder committed in 1985 following an encounter in a bar.  The Supreme Court held that, judging by professional standards existing at the time of Van Hook's trial (rather than by more recent American Bar Association standards), the attorneys conducted an adequate investigation and provided sufficient representation.  The Court said, "This is not a case in which the defendant’s attorneys failed to act while potentially powerful mitigating evidence stared them in the face, cf. Wiggins, or would have been apparent from documents any reasonable attorney would have obtained, cf. Rompilla v. Beard. It is instead a case, like Strickland itself, in which defense counsel’s 'decision not to seek more' mitigating evidence from the defendant’s background 'than was already in hand' fell 'well within the range of professionally reasonable judgments.'" (citations omitted).

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Supreme Court to Review Effect of "Gross Negligence" by Death Penalty Attorney

On October 13, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear Holland v. Florida, a case raising the question of "whether 'gross negligence' by a state-appointed defense attorney in a death penalty case provides a basis for extending the time to file a federal habeas challenge, in a case where the habeas plea was filed late despite repeated instructions from the client." (  In his petition for certiorari to the Court, the defendant stated, "Despite the State of Florida's promise to Petitioner that he have counsel to competently and effectively represent him in both his state and federal postconviction litigation, a promise that would be purportedly enforced by judicial monitoring, Petitioner's state collateral attorney, Mr. Collins, failed to timely file a (habeas corpus) §2254 petition on behalf of Petitioner."  The defendant then filed his own petition for habeas corpus and, while admitting it was filed late, asked that the deadline be extended because of the serious error by his appointed attorney.

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U.S. Supreme Court Orders Historic Hearing on Innocence Claim in Troy Davis Case

On August 17 the United States Supreme Court ordered a new evidentiary hearing for Georgia death row inmate Troy Davis, whose case has drawn worldwide attention because of new evidence of his possible innocence. For the first time in nearly 50 years, the Court has favorably responded to a petition directed to them, rather than as an appeal from other courts.  With only two Justices writing in dissent, the Court ordered the lower federal court to hear Davis' evidence: "The 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." 

Since Davis' initial conviction in 1991, seven of nine eyewitnesses against him have recanted their testimony. Justice Stevens, concurring with Justices Breyer and Ginsburg, wrote, "The substantial risk of putting an innocent man to death clearly provides an adequate justification for holding an evidentiary hearing."  He further responded to Justice Scalia's dissent, which would have denied Davis' request on narrow legal grounds, by strongly rejecting the notion that the law allows the execution of an innocent person: "[I]magine a petitioner in Davis’s situation who possesses new evidence conclusively and definitively proving, beyond any scintilla of doubt, that he is an innocent man. The dissent’s reasoning would allow such a petitioner to be put to death nonetheless. The Court correctly refuses to endorse such reasoning."  An amicus brief had been filed on behalf of Davis by former members of the judiciary and law enforcement officials, including former Georgia Congressman Bob Barr and the former director of the FBI William S. Sessions.

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