ATLANTA — The Supreme Court on Monday rejected an appeal from a Georgia death row inmate who was given a rare chance to argue his innocence but failed to convince a federal judge that he was wrongly convicted of the 1989 murder of a Savannah police officer.
The decision clears the way for state officials to move forward with Troy Davis' execution, but problems with the state's supply of a key lethal injection drug put the timing in doubt. Federal regulators this month seized the entire stockpile of the drug, sodium thiopental, amid questions about how the state obtained it. The move effectively put all executions in Georgia on hold.
The court's rejection of the appeal is the most stinging setback yet for Davis, who has become a cause celebre for the international anti-death penalty movement amid claims that he wasn't the one who killed off-duty Savannah police officer Mark MacPhail — and that he had evidence to prove it.
He's been scheduled for executions three times since 2007, but was spared each time by courts agreeing to take another look at his case. After Monday's ruling, though, even Davis' attorneys acknowledge his options are limited. Defense attorney Jason Ewart said the likeliest route is the Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles, a five-member board that rarely postpones executions.
Davis has long claimed he could clear his name in MacPhail's death if a court gave him the chance to hear new evidence. The U.S. Supreme Court in 2009 agreed he should be able to argue his innocence claim, a rare chance afforded no other American death row defendant in at least 50 years.
But after a hearing in Savannah, U.S. District Judge William T. Moore Jr. ruled in August that the evidence presented by Davis' attorneys wasn't nearly strong enough to prove he's innocent. The judge wrote that while the evidence casts some additional doubt on his conviction, "it is largely smoke and mirrors."
Davis' sister said she's disappointed by the court's ruling but hopeful that the state pardons board would review the case.
"We have to address the parole board. They said they wouldn't execute someone if there's doubt, and this case is so riddled with doubt," said Martina Correia. "It's a shame in the U.S. when people don't value innocence. You would think the highest court in the land would have a lot more sensitivity to these issues."
MacPhail's mother, Anneliese MacPhail, said she was hopeful the court's decision has put to rest Davis' legal appeals.
"I'm relieved that it's over now," said Anneliese MacPhail. "Well, maybe. I'm not believing it until it's over. It's been going on for so many years now that every time we think we're near the end, something else comes up. I just want this to end so badly, you won't believe it. This has been a nightmare."
MacPhail was working off-duty at a Savannah bus station on Aug. 19, 1989, when he was shot twice after rushing to help a homeless man who had been attacked. Eyewitnesses identified Davis as the shooter at his trial, but no physical evidence tied him to the slaying.
Davis was convicted of the murder in 1991 and sentenced to death, but his lawyers have argued that several key witnesses at the trial have since recanted their testimony.
During two days of testimony in June, Moore heard from two witnesses who said they falsely incriminated Davis and two others who said another man had confessed to being MacPhail's killer in the years since Davis' trial. But Moore concluded that several of the witnesses backed off the incriminating statements during the 1991 trial and that others simply couldn't be believed.
The case has become a rallying point for death penalty opponents across the globe, attracting support from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, Amnesty International and dignitaries such as former President Jimmy Carter and Pope Benedict XVI. Several of Davis' supporters urged the pardons board to commute his sentence.
"No objective person could confidently determine that Davis is guilty beyond a reasonable doubt from the evidence available now in his case," said Laura Moye of Amnesty International. "That leaves an ominous cloud hanging over an irreversible sentence such as the death penalty."