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High court turns down appeal of officer's killer

Seven witnesses recanted, but Troy Davis' final plea for a new trial is denied.

October 15, 2008|David G. Savage | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court cleared the way Tuesday for the execution of a Georgia man who claims he was wrongly convicted of shooting a police officer in a dark parking lot in Savannah nearly 20 years ago.

In recent years, seven of the nine witnesses who pointed to Troy Davis at his trial have recanted their testimony. His lawyers appealed to the Supreme Court and argued that the Constitution prohibited an execution "when substantial evidence of innocence is discovered."

On Sept. 23, hours before Davis was set to die, the high court granted a stay so the justices could review his case.

But on Tuesday, they turned down his final appeal in a one-line order without a comment or a recorded dissent.

Davis' case had been reviewed extensively. A state appeals judge, the Georgia Supreme Court, a federal district judge, the U.S. Court of Appeals in Atlanta and the Georgia Board of Paroles and Pardons had re-examined Davis' case -- including the recanted statement from the witnesses -- and ultimately upheld his guilt.

But the Georgia Supreme Court divided 4-3 on the question. The majority said it put greater faith in the trial testimony of the witnesses than in the later recantations. The dissenters said Davis should have a new trial.

Amnesty International USA on Tuesday denounced the court's refusal to give Davis a new hearing.

"The Supreme Court's decision is truly shocking, given that significant evidence of Davis' innocence will never have a chance to be examined," said Larry Cox, its executive director. "Faulty eyewitness identification is the leading cause of wrongful convictions, and the hallmark of Davis' case."

Davis' conviction rested on the statements of several people who were in or near the parking lot of a Burger King restaurant after midnight in August 1989.

Officer Mark MacPhail was working at the Greyhound Bus Station and came out to stop a fight involving a homeless man who had a six-pack of beer.

When MacPhail gave chase to one man, the man turned and shot the officer. The shooter then fired several more times, killing MacPhail.

Davis, then 19, was there, as was Sylvester "Redd" Coles.

Both men are black, and they were about the same age, height and weight.

Coles identified Davis as the shooter, and the police then found witnesses who identified Davis or said he had spoken of the shooting.

Most of these witnesses later recanted.

Coles remained the state's strongest witness in the murder case.

During the trial, several witnesses said they saw Davis accost the homeless man, and they said he had a gun. Others said they had seen the shooting from some distance, but most of them said later that they were not sure who had fired the shots.

Davis' lawyers asserted in their appeal that Coles was the likely shooter.

"The only remnants of the state's case against [Davis] are the self-serving testimony of Redd Coles and [a bystander's] dubious in-court identification of Mr. Davis that occurred two years after the crime," Davis' lawyers said.

Former President Carter, Pope Benedict XVI and Nobel Peace Prize winner Archbishop Desmond Tutu are among those who have called for clemency for Davis.

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david.savage@latimes.com

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