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Georgia man's execution is stayed

Tonight's scheduled lethal injection is delayed after parole board members hear key witnesses recant.

July 17, 2007|Jenny Jarvie | Times Staff Writer

ATLANTA — A Georgia man scheduled to be executed tonight for killing a police officer in 1989 won a temporary reprieve Monday evening after key witnesses from his trial recanted their testimony before the state's parole board.

After a nine-hour clemency hearing, the Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles granted Troy Anthony Davis, 38, a 90-day stay while it evaluates and analyzes evidence.

By the time Davis heard the news, he had already been moved into a solitary "death watch" cell at the state prison in Jackson, about 45 miles south of Atlanta. Davis, who was to be killed by lethal injection at 7 p.m., still faces execution unless the parole board commutes his sentence to life in prison.

"We're no longer under the gun," said Davis' defense attorney, Jason Ewart. "But we still have more convincing to do. It's too soon for a celebration."

A parade of witnesses joined Davis' mother, sisters and pastor behind closed doors Monday. After five hours with Davis' supporters, the board spent nearly four hours with prosecutors and the mother, widow and children of slain Officer Mark Allen MacPhail.

The five-member board deliberated for less than an hour.

Davis' case has drawn much scrutiny from legal scholars and death penalty opponents, who say that in recent years strict federal regulations governing death penalty appeals, coupled with Southern states' paltry legal resources for death row inmates, have increased the possibility of executing the innocent.

On Aug. 19, 1989, MacPhail, 27, an off-duty Savannah police officer working as a security guard, rushed to help a homeless man who had been assaulted outside a Greyhound bus station. McPhail was shot twice.

Without physical evidence, the case rested entirely on witnesses. A day after the shooting, Sylvester "Red" Coles went to the police station with a lawyer and implicated Davis.

Davis, in turn, insisted Coles committed the crime. But his initial state habeas corpus appeal was handled by an underfunded defender organization without the resources to investigate his claims.

By the time his legal team tracked down new witnesses, the courts said it was too late to appeal.

Sixteen years after Davis' trial, seven of nine witnesses who helped implicate him have recanted or contradicted their testimony, with many saying they were intimidated by investigators. Coles, one of the two remaining witnesses against Davis, has been incriminated by new witnesses.

However, Davis' attorneys have not been able to get a court to hear new evidence because of a 1996 federal law intended to limit delays in death penalty cases.

The Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act limited circumstances under which federal judges may grant habeas corpus petitions in state cases.

Since the U.S. Supreme Court allowed executions to resume in 1973, Georgia has commuted eight sentences.

jenny.jarvie@latimes.com

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