The life of Troy Davis, a convicted killer at the centre of one of the longest-running controversies in US legal history, lay in the hands of a five-member panel which met in Atlanta last night to hear a final appeal against his impending execution.
Attorneys for the 42-year-old man presented evidence which they believe casts serious doubt on his conviction for the murder of an off-duty police officer in 1989. Unless they persuade the Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles to grant clemency, he will die by lethal injection on Wednesday.
It’s the fourth time in fourth years that the State has attempted to execute Davis, whose supporters include everyone from Desmond Tutu and Pope Benedict to Jimmy Carter and the actress Susan Sarandon. Each time, his lawyers have managed to delay the punishment. But this is believed to represent his last potential avenue of appeal.
Davis has always argued his innocence, and there is no DNA, fingerprint, or other physical evidence linking him to the death Mark Macphail, who was killed after intervening in an altercation outside the store in Savannah, Georgia, where he worked as a security guard.
Seven of the nine prosecution witnesses have since recanted, saying they were put under pressure by investigating police to testify against him. Two further witnesses have meanwhile come forward to say that another man, Sylvester Coles, confessed to the crime.
Coles is one of the two remaining prosecution witnesses who have not changed their evidence since the trial. He is believed to have owned a weapon similar to the one used in the attack. However prosecutors have successfully argued that evidence regarding his alleged confession should be inadmissible in Davis's appeals.
This case has meanwhile become internationally famous in recent years. Davis is seen to represent what critics call the corrupt reality of the capital punishment system in America’s deep south, in which a hugely disproportionate number of executed men come from ethnic minorities. Supporters have pegged him as an innocent black man who was hastily arrested and charged by mostly police investigators.
He got a sympathetic hearing from the US Supreme Court, which usually takes a conservative position on capital cases, in 2009, when it ordered a federal judge in Savannah to consider fresh evidence in the case. But last August, that judge found that Davis’s legal team had failed to prove his innocence to the required level.
Between 150 and 200 demonstrators were outside the court in Atlanta where his last-ditch appeal was being held yesterday. A million people worldwide have signed petitions calling for his release, including more than 200,000 in the past week, and his case is supported by organisations ranging from Amnesty International to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
Prosecutors have, for their part stood by their case through the years. They say ballistics evidence links Davis to the shooting, and argued that many of the concerns about witness testimony were raised during the original trial.
They are backed by supporters of the death penalty, which is endorsed by a strong majority of Americans, particularly in Southern States. They also count MacPhail's relative as fans: the victim’s family told reporters this week that they have no question that prosecutors charged the right person. “There's no doubt," said his mother, Anneliese. "Not after I went through that trial and saw what I saw."