Georgia Supreme Court to Troy Davis: Innocence doesn't matter

Capital Defense Weekly just reported that the Georgia Supreme Court denied a new trial for Troy Davis. According to Karl Keys, “In a sharp 4-3 decision the Georgia Supreme Court denies relief over a strong claim of innocence. The evidence of innocence, the majority holds, comes too late.”

For the reasons set forth below, we conclude that the trial court did not abuse its discretion in denying Davis’s extraordinary motion for new trial without first conducting a trial.. . .

Davis’s extraordinary motion for new trial relied primarily on affidavit testimony consisting of four types, recantations by trial witnesses, statements recounting alleged admissions of guilt by Coles, statements that Coles disposed of a handgun following the murder, and an alleged eyewitness account.

As the Chief Justice notes in dissent:

I believe that this case illustrates that this Court’s approach in extraordinary motions for new trials based on new evidence is overly rigid and fails to allow an adequate inquiry into the fundamental question, which is whether or not an innocent person might have been convicted or even, as in this case, might be put to death.

We have noted that recantations by trial witnesses are inherently suspect, because there is almost always more reason to credit trial testimony over later recantations. However, it is unwise and unnecessary to make a categorical rule that recantations may never be considered in support of an extraordinary motion for new trial. The majority cites case law stating that recantations may be considered only if the recanting witness’s trial testimony is shown to be the “purest fabrication.”3 To the extent that this phrase cautions that trial testimony should not be lightly disregarded, it has obvious merit. However, it should not be corrupted into a categorical rule that new evidence in the form of recanted testimony can never be considered, no matter how trustworthy it might appear. If recantation testimony, either alone or supported by other evidence, shows convincingly that prior trial testimony was false, it simply defies all logic and morality to hold that it must be disregarded categorically.

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Hooman Hedayati

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