The U.S. Supreme Court cleared the way Tuesday for a man to be put to death for killing a police officer, despite calls from his supporters to reconsider the case because seven of nine key witnesses against him have recanted their testimony.
The high court granted Troy Davis a reprieve Sept. 23, less than two hours before his scheduled execution. But the justices declined Tuesday to give his appeal a full-blown hearing, clearing the last hurdle toward his death by lethal injection.
It was not immediately clear when his execution will take place.
Davis, 39, was sentenced to death for the 1989 murder of 27-year-old Mark MacPhail, a police officer in Savannah, Ga. But doubts about his guilt and a high-profile publicity campaign have won him the support of prominent advocates including former President Jimmy Carter and South Africa Archbishop Desmond Tutu.
Options are few
Davis' legal team said it was frantically searching for other recourse, but those prospects seem dim.
"I think it's disgusting, terrible. I'm extremely disappointed," said Martina Correia, Davis' sister, when told about the decision. "Well, we still have to fight. We can't stop."
MacPhail's family said it was relieved by the ruling.
"I'm hoping that soon we will have some peace, that this will all be over," said MacPhail's mother, Anneliese MacPhail, who is 75.
MacPhail was working off-duty as a security guard at a bus station when he rushed to help a homeless man who had been pistol-whipped at a nearby parking lot. He and was shot twice when he approached Davis and two other men.
Witnesses identified Davis as the shooter at his 1991 trial.
But Davis' lawyers say new evidence proves their client was a victim of mistaken identity. Besides those who have recanted their testimony, three others who did not testify have said Sylvester "Red" Coles — who testified against Davis at his trial — confessed to the killing.
Coles refused to talk about the case when contacted by The Associated Press during a 2007 court appearance and has no listed phone number.
Prosecutors have said the case is closed. They also say some of the witness affidavits simply repeat what a trial jury has already heard, while others are irrelevant because they come from witnesses who never testified.
A divided Georgia Supreme Court twice rejected his request for a new trial, and the pardons board turned down his bid for clemency last month after considering the case again.
Two hours before Davis' scheduled Sept. 23 execution, the U.S. Supreme Court issued the stay, sparking a celebration among Davis supporters.
"This is not over yet," said Davis, who sounded upbeat speaking to the crowd by phone. "This is the beginning of my blessing."
Davis' supporters blast decision
As word of the top U.S. court's latest decision trickled down Tuesday, Davis' supporters sent out dispatches blasting the move.
"It is disgraceful that the highest court in the land could sink so low when doubts surrounding Davis' guilt are so high," said Larry Cox, executive director of Amnesty International USA, which has lobbied for the inmate's release.
Chatham County District Attorney Spencer Lawton, who has declined to speak to the media about the Davis case while it was still pending, broke his silence with a 14-page statement after the Supreme Court's decision.
In it, he said the witness recantations failed to meet the legal threshold required to call a new trial. The high rate of recantations, he said, also "invites a suggestion of manipulation, making it very difficult to believe."
In a telephone interview, Lawton said his reaction to the ruling was "ambivalence."
"I'm not a great fan of the death penalty," he said. "I wish of course that none of this had happened, but it has. And I've done what I had to do. The law is the law. It says you kill a police officer, you're subject to the death penalty."