updated 8/17/2009 12:11:46 PM ET 2009-08-17T16:11:46

The Supreme Court on Monday ordered a new hearing for death row inmate Troy Davis, whose supporters say is innocent and should be spared from execution for killing a police officer 20 years ago.

Davis has spent 18 years on death row for the 1989 slaying of Savannah, Ga., police officer Mark MacPhail. Davis' attorneys insist that he is innocent and deserves a new trial because several witnesses at his trial have recanted their testimony.

The high court ordered a federal judge in Georgia to determine whether there is evidence "that could not have been obtained at the time of trial (that) clearly establishes petitioner's innocence."

Defense lawyers had appealed to the Supreme Court after a federal court denied a new trial request in April.

"The substantial risk of putting an innocent man to death clearly provides an adequate justification for holding an evidentiary hearing," said Justice John Paul Stevens, writing for the court. Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer concurred with Stevens.

MacPhail was slain 20 years ago while working off-duty as a security guard at a bus station. He had rushed to help a homeless man who had been pistol-whipped at a nearby parking lot, and was shot twice when he approached Davis and two other men. Witnesses identified Davis as the shooter at his 1991 trial.

Mistaken identity?
But Davis' lawyers say new evidence proves their client was a victim of mistaken identity. They say three people who did not testify at Davis' trial have said another man confessed to the killing.

The case has attracted worldwide attention, with calls to stop Davis' execution from former President Jimmy Carter, Pope Benedict XVI and Nobel Peace Prize-winner Desmond Tutu.

But state and federal courts have rejected Davis' request for a new trial, and state officials have rejected calls for clemency.

Davis was scheduled to be executed on Sept. 23, but it was postponed after the Supreme Court agreed to consider whether he should get a new trial.

Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas dissented from the decision to order an evidentiary hearing, with Scalia saying that "every judicial and executive body that has examined petitioner's claim has been unpersuaded."

Scalia writes dissent
Davis' "claim is a sure loser," Scalia said. "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."

Scalia said the Supreme Court was sending the District Court for the Southern District of Georgia "on a fool's errand."

"That court is directed to consider evidence of actual innocence which has been reviewed and rejected at least three times," he said.

Justice Sonia Sotomayor, who was just confirmed as a new justice earlier this month, did not take part in the consideration of Davis' motion, the court said.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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