WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday granted an appeal by a man sentenced to death in Georgia for the murder of a policeman, ruling he should get a hearing to assess what he says is new evidence showing his innocence.
The justices transferred the case of Troy Davis to a U.S. District Court in Georgia for a hearing and determination of his claims that new witnesses will clearly establish his innocence.
Davis had been convicted of murder and sentenced to death for the killing 20 years ago of police officer Mark MacPhail in Savannah, Georgia.
Lawyers for Davis said in their appeal that seven of nine prosecution witnesses have recanted their trial testimony and several new witnesses have identified or implicated a different person as the shooter who killed MacPhail in a parking lot.
A number of prominent opponents of the death penalty have supported the appeal by Davis and said the execution cannot go forward as long as there are doubts about his guilt.
Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter, Pope Benedict and Nobel Peace Prize winner Desmond Tutu were among those who have expressed concern about the fairness of Davis’ trial.
Human rights advocates and Davis’ family said they were delighted by the decision.
“I am shocked and elated. Nobody thought the Supreme Court would do something positive for Troy. ... This might be the light we are looking for at the end of the tunnel,” said his sister Martina Correia.
Attorneys for the state of Georgia told the Supreme Court the appeal should be rejected. They said every court that has reviewed the claims by Davis has found he failed to establish his innocence.
Two of the court’s conservatives, Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas, dissented. Scalia wrote that the Supreme Court was sending the federal judge in Georgia on a “fool’s errand” because the evidence had been reviewed and rejected at least three previous times.
Justice John Paul Stevens, joined by Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer, responded to Scalia and said he was wrong.
“The substantial risk of putting an innocent man to death clearly provides an adequate justification for holding an evidentiary hearing,” Stevens wrote.
The Supreme Court’s newest member, Justice Sonia Sotomayor, who was sworn in on August 8, did not take part in the decision in the Davis case. No reason was given on why she did not participate.
Additional reporting by Matthew Bigg, editing by Will Dunham