A string of witnesses admitted Wednesday giving false testimony at the 1991 trial of a convicted murderer who has spent almost two decades on death row in the United States.
The admissions came at a special hearing ordered by the US Supreme Court to give Troy Davis, now 41, another chance to prove his innocence in a highly unusual case that has garnered international attention.
Previous coverage: Supreme Court gives Troy Davis a new hearing
The witnesses, some of whom were illiterate, in prison, or in their teens when they originally testified, provided the key evidence that convicted Davis, an African-American, of murdering white off-duty police officer Mark McPhail.
Davis, now 41, has always proclaimed his innocence over the 1989 murder, and one-by-one on Wednesday, witnesses admitted their lies and recanted their testimony.
“When the police arrived, I told them I could barely recognize the shooter,” said Atwan Williams. “I was scared, nervous, I was just trying to take off.”
Asked if he had read back the deposition he gave to police, Williams replied: “No sir, I can’t read.”
Kevin McQueen told the court he had been given a lighter sentence in return for simply making up the details of a confession he claimed Davis had given him. “I was mad at him,” he said.
Seven of the nine witnesses against Davis have recanted their testimony, and several said Wednesday they had lied because they were scared by the police.
“I had cops all around me,” said Jeffrey Sapp, a friend of Davis’s. “I was so scared, I’d have told them everything they wanted. They kept saying ‘Troy told you, Troy told you.’ I was saying the same thing they told me to say.”
At least one of the witnesses, who was 16 when he testified in the original trial and claimed he was harassed by police, now says another witness against Davis could have murdered McPhail.
Prosecutors in Davis’s original trial relied on witness accounts to convict him and presented no physical evidence, such as DNA or fingerprints.
Facing the people whose testimony put him on death row for the past 19 years, Davis betrayed no emotion.
Dressed in a white prison uniform but without handcuffs, he listened quietly to the testimony, occasionally talking to his attorneys.
The courtroom, filled to capacity with spectators who arrived in the early morning to secure a seat, was divided between Davis’s black relatives, and the white members of the McPhail family, including his two children.
“I am ready for justice,” Kim Robertson, a friend of McPhail’s, told AFP. “The execution should already have taken place. I have no doubt he’s guilty.”
But the US Supreme Court ruled last August that it had no such certainty and ordered a lower court to submit a memo on whether new evidence could prove Davis innocent.
The Supreme Court will then consider whether or not Davis should be granted a new trial.
The decision was unusual, in part because it was issued during an official recess, but also because the bar to ordering new consideration of evidence is extremely high.
“Never before has the US Supreme Court ordered a hearing to determine if it is unconstitutional to execute someone who is innocent,” said Larry Cox, executive director of Amnesty International USA, in a statement Tuesday.
He said the case against Davis had “unraveled,” but even the shifting stories presented by witnesses may not prove sufficiently new and exculpatory to save Davis from execution.
The law is unresolved on whether a showing of innocence would allow Davis to escape the death penalty if his original trial met constitutional standards for prosecution.
The case has attracted international attention and the hearing, which is expected to continue through Friday, was being observed by human rights and civil liberties activists.