Execution Of Ga. Man Near Despite Recantations

By Peter Whoriskey
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, July 16, 2007

SAVANNAH, Ga. -- A Georgia man is scheduled to be executed by lethal injection on Tuesday for killing a police officer in 1989, even though the case against him has withered in recent years as most of the key witnesses at his trial have recanted and in some cases said they lied under pressure from police.

Prosecutors discount the significance of the recantations and argue that it is too late to present such evidence. But supporters of Troy Davis, 38, and some legal scholars say the case illustrates the dangers wrought by decades of Supreme Court decisions and new laws that have rendered the courts less likely to overturn a death sentence.

Three of four witnesses who testified at trial that Davis shot the officer have signed statements contradicting their identification of the gunman. Two other witnesses -- a fellow inmate and a neighborhood acquaintance who told police that Davis had confessed to the shooting -- have said they made it up.

Other witnesses point the finger not at Davis but at another man. Yet none has testified during his appeals because federal courts barred their testimony.

"It's getting scary," Davis said by phone last week. "They don't want to hear the new facts."

The circumstances of the case have provoked criticism beyond the usual groups that oppose the death penalty.

"There is no more serious violent crime than the murder of an off-duty police officer who was putting his life on the line to protect innocent bystanders," William S. Sessions, FBI director under presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, wrote recently in an op-ed piece in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. But "serious questions have been raised about Davis's guilt. . . . It would be intolerable to execute an innocent man."

At the heart of Davis's difficulties is a law passed by Congress and signed by President Bill Clinton in the wake of the Oklahoma City bombing -- the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996.

The legislation was aimed at bomber Timothy J. McVeigh but has had far broader consequences: It limits the reasons for which federal courts can overturn death penalty convictions. In Davis's case, it has helped block the exploration of witnesses' statements that they had lied at trial.

Before the law, the federal courts intervened to provide "relief" to death row inmates -- that is, a new trial, new sentencing hearing or a commutation of the sentence to life imprisonment -- in about 45 percent of cases, though the rate was declining. But between 2000 and 2007, federal courts intervened to provide such relief to the death row inmate in about 10 percent of cases, according to a forthcoming study.

"People might say the law makes the system more efficient. But we have significantly increased the likelihood of executing someone who is actually innocent," said David R. Dow, a University of Houston law professor who co-authored the study with Eric M. Freedman of Hofstra University.

The second of five children, Troy Anthony Davis grew up with his parents and siblings in Cloverdale, a black, middle-class subdivision in Savannah.

CONTINUED     1           >

© 2007 The Washington Post Company