Vigils held in Savannah before Troy Davis hearing

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

SAVANNAH, GA. — Supporters of Troy Anthony Davis gathered Tuesday to pray that he's declared innocent after nearly 20 years on Georgia's death row, while family and friends of the Savannah police officer he was convicted of killing bowed their heads in hopes that their long wait for his execution is nearly over.

The dueling rallies came the evening before Davis was scheduled to face a U.S. District Court judge who may ultimately decide his fate.

The U.S. Supreme Court, in an extraordinary move last summer, ordered the hearing for Davis' lawyers to present evidence that they say will exonerate him in the 1989 slaying of Savannah police officer Mark MacPhail. Testimony was to begin Wednesday in what will largely resemble a new trial — only this time Davis must prove he's innocent.

Davis, 41, has already been spared from three execution dates, though his appeals so far have ultimately been rejected.

MacPhail's grown son and daughter gathered with about 50 supporters, including Savannah's police chief, at a memorial to fallen police officers Tuesday to restate their convictions that Davis killed their father and should be punished.

"Hopefully, the truth will come out and justice will come out of it," said 21-year-old Mark Allen MacPhail Jr. "We feel like it's getting close. We want the closure."

Meanwhile, Davis' sister and mother attended a church service of prayers and hymns for him at New Life Apostolic Temple in West Savannah. They were joined by about 75 supporters, including members of the NAACP and Amnesty International.

"Troy has been waiting for a long time to come and have his case heard," said Virginia Davis, his mother. "We're fighting for Troy's life. And we're going to continue to fight for his innocence until he's free."

The U.S. Supreme Court's order to grant Davis an evidentiary hearing was extraordinary because federal death penalty appeals normally look only at questions of due process and violations of constitutional rights. Appeals based on a condemned inmates' claims of innocence are routinely rejected.

Davis' attorneys say seven witnesses at his 1991 trial have recanted all or parts of their testimony. Several others have signed affidavits saying another man has since confessed to killing MacPhail. Those two groups will make up the bulk of Davis' case.

Prosecutors relied mostly on eyewitness testimony to convict Davis. Though police recovered spent shell casings from the bullets that killed MacPhail, the gun was never found.

Still, legal experts say the Supreme Court set a tough standard for Davis to exonerate himself. The court's August decision said his attorneys must "clearly establish" Davis' innocence.

Prosecutors have insisted they correctly singled out Davis as MacPhail's killer. They will be allowed to rebut any new testimony and evidence at the hearing before U.S. District Judge William T. Moore Jr.

Days before the hearing, prosecutors filed notice they plan to present some new evidence of their own — two Georgia Bureau of Investigation reports on a pair of blood-stained shorts police found in the home of Davis' mother hours after the slaying. The GBI reports were never used as evidence during Davis' trial.