Supreme Court orders lower court to review death row <i>habeas</i> case
Supreme Court orders lower court to review death row habeas case

[JURIST] The US Supreme Court [official website; JURIST news archive] on Monday ordered [text, PDF] a federal court in Georgia to consider the case of death row inmate Troy Anthony Davis [defense website]. Davis had filed an original writ of habeas corpus [cert. petition, PDF] directly in the Supreme Court. Justice John Paul Stevens wrote a concurring opinion, joined by Justices Stephen Breyer and Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Justice Antonin Scalia filed a dissenting opinion [text, PDF], joined by Justice Clarence Thomas, writing:

Today this Court takes the extraordinary step — one not taken in nearly 50 years — of instructing a district court to adjudicate a state prisoner's petition for an original writ of habeas corpus. The Court proceeds down this path even though every judicial and executive body that has examined petitioner's stale claim of innocence has been unpersuaded, and (to make matters worst) even though it would be impossible for the District Court to grant any relief. Far from demonstrating, as this Court's Rule 20.4(a) requires, "exceptional circumstances" that "warrant the exercise of the Court's discretionary powers," petitioner's claim is a sure loser. Transferring his petition to the District Court is a confusing exercise that can serve no purpose except to delay the State's execution of its lawful criminal judgment.

Justice Sonia Sotomayor took no part in the Court's decision. It is unclear how the remaining justices voted. Davis's case was originally scheduled for consideration at the end of last year's Supreme Court term, but the Court took no action at that time. It is fairly unusual for the Court to issue such a ruling in the summer or for the Court to grant an original writ of habeas corpus.

Davis was sentenced to death in 1991 for the killing of off-duty Savannah, Georgia police officer Mark MacPhail. Davis has already exhausted his appeals under the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act, which limits death-row prisoners to one round of federal court appeals. In October, the US Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit granted a provisional stay of execution [JURIST report], directing the parties to address through briefs whether Davis can meet the stringent requirements of federal law that would permit him to file a second habeas corpus petition for federal review of his case. The Supreme Court had rejected Davis' petition for certiorari [JURIST report] appealing his death sentence earlier that month, lifting their own stay on his execution. According to defense lawyers, key witnesses against Davis have recanted their testimony, and others say another person has since confessed to the killing. The Court had previously stayed Davis' execution [JURIST report] and had also previously denied a petition for certiorari in the case.