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11th-hour plea for Georgia inmate's life

Human rights activists are urging officials to consider new evidence.

July 11, 2007|Jenny Jarvie | Times Staff Writer

ATLANTA — With a Bible under her arm, Virginia Davis on Tuesday led human rights advocates to the building that houses Georgia's Board of Pardon and Paroles. All she wants, she said, is for someone to listen to the facts in her son's case before it's too late.

Troy Anthony Davis, 38, convicted of the murder of a Savannah police officer, is scheduled to be executed next week.

Yet a growing number of human rights activists are urging Georgia officials to consider new evidence that might prove his innocence. Thus far, state appeals courts have declined to hear his case.

Since Davis' 1991 trial, which was based entirely on witness testimony, seven of the nine witnesses who implicated Davis have renounced or contradicted their trial testimony, with many claiming they were intimidated by police.

One of the two remaining witnesses, defense attorneys say, is a principal suspect, who has himself been incriminated by nine witnesses.

"We have the evidence," said Virginia Davis, 62. "All we need is someone to listen."

Davis appears to be caught in legal limbo. His initial state habeas corpus petition was handled by attorneys from an underfunded defender organization that lacked the resources to investigate his case. After that, his petition was denied on the grounds that evidence of police coercion of witnesses was "procedurally defaulted," meaning it should have been raised earlier.

"I think it's a sad day in Georgia ... that they're willing to try and kill an innocent man," Davis said in a rare telephone interview with reporters Monday. "I don't want to die, especially for a crime I didn't commit."

Davis' case, legal experts say, is a stark reminder of the legal hurdles death row inmates must overcome, particularly in Georgia, which, like Alabama, does not guarantee death row inmates counsel for appeals.

Last year, experts from Georgia's legal community produced a report, sponsored by the American Bar Assn., recommending that Georgia impose a moratorium on executions because the state could not ensure fairness and accuracy in every capital case. Among other things, it cited racial disparity in capital sentencing, with those convicted of killing whites 4.5 times more likely to be sentenced to death as those convicted of killing blacks.

In this case, the officer killed was white; Davis is black.

The state parole board is scheduled to hear an appeal for clemency from Davis' lawyers Monday, a day before Davis is set to be executed by lethal injection at a state prison in Jackson, Ga.

On Tuesday, scores of activists joined Davis' family, attorneys and two trial witnesses to deliver 4,000 letters of support. The Rev. Desmond Tutu, a Nobel Prize winner, and singer Harry Belafonte are among those who support a rehearing.

"We are here because the death penalty is a runaway train," said Larry Cox, executive director of Amnesty International USA. "It renders a defendant virtually helpless in the face of such machinery as incompetent defense, prosecutorial misconduct, racial and class bias, and mishandled or ignored evidence."

It was just before 1 a.m. on Aug. 19, 1989, when Savannah police Officer Mark Allen MacPhail was shot twice as he responded to reports of a disturbance outside a Greyhound bus station.

With no physical evidence -- the weapon used in the crime was never found -- the case rested on witnesses. The first man to implicate Davis was Sylvester "Red" Coles, who went to the police with a lawyer soon after the shooting.

Coles has now been implicated by nine witnesses.

Davis' appeal lawyers argue that the Savannah Police Department, caught up in the emotion of the crime, rushed to judgment, and that Davis' trial counsel did not sufficiently investigate the state's evidence.

Davis' initial state habeas corpus appeal was handled by attorneys from the Georgia Resource Center, whose budget was slashed in 1995 by the federal government. In an affidavit, Davis' former attorney, Beth Wells, said "the lack of adequate resources and the numerous intervening crises" made effective representation impossible.

Since then, Davis' appeals have been limited by a 1996 federal law, the Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act, which allows appeals only in very narrow circumstances.

Last year, the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals denied Davis' petition for rehearing, arguing that he had not "borne his burden to establish a viable claim that his trial was constitutionally unfair."

"The execution of an innocent man is not unconstitutional," said Jason Ewart, Davis' attorney, "so we face an uphill battle."

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jenny.jarvie@latimes.com

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