(NNPA)—Regardless of all the legal and moral arguments for and against the death penalty in America, there is one thing we all can agree on—no one should ever be put to death for a crime he or she did not commit.
On Aug. 17, the United States Supreme Court in a 6-2 ruling upheld that principle by ordering a federal district court in Georgia to hold an evidentiary hearing in the case of Troy Anthony Davis. For 18 years, Davis has been challenging from death row what he and his many supporters claim is his wrongful conviction in the shooting death of off-duty Savannah police officer, Mark Allen MacPhail in August of 1989. There is no physical evidence linking Davis to the crime and since his conviction, seven of the nine witnesses have recanted their testimony. Several of them have implicated the prosecution’s lead witness as the actual killer.
The Supreme Court’s surprise ruling was highly unusual.
As reported in the New York Times, “…the court had not taken the ‘extraordinary step’ of ordering a federal trial court to adjudicate such a petition from a state prisoner in nearly 50 years.” The decision allows for a hearing that “will receive testimony and make findings of fact as to whether evidence that could not have been obtained at the time of trial clearly establishes [Davis’] innocence.” In his concurrence, Justice John Paul Stevens wrote, “The substantial risk of putting an innocent man to death clearly provides an adequate justification for holding an evidentiary hearing.” We agree. And so do thousands of Davis’ supporters.
Prominent activists like former President Jimmy Carter, former Georgia Congressman Bob Barr, Pope Benedict and Desmond Tutu have argued that Davis’ case deserves further scrutiny. Twenty-seven former prosecutors and judges, including former FBI Director William Sessions, have filed a brief on his behalf. In a statement Sessions said, “…when it comes to a human life, the courts should always be able to examine claims of innocence.” The NAACP, the National Urban League and other human rights groups have also rallied behind Davis’ cause. In June more than 60,000 signatures were delivered to Chatham County, Georgia District Attorney Larry Chisholm urging him to reopen the case.
The racial subtext of this case cannot be ignored. Davis, a Black man, was convicted of killing MacPhail, a White police officer. The fact is while African-Americans make up 13 percent of the population; more than 42 percent of death row inmates are Black. Further, according to the Death Penalty Information Center, since 1973, a total of 133 men and women have been exonerated or had their death sentences commuted based on post-conviction findings that demonstrated their likely innocence. These disparities and problems cast a long shadow of doubt on our criminal justice system. As long as questions of equity, fairness and fallibility persist, we must give Troy Davis and others like him on death row every chance to prove their innocence.
(Marc Morial is president and CEO of the National Urban League.)