WASHINGTON (AFP) — The US Supreme Court granted a last-minute stay of execution to Troy Davis, an African-American who was due to be put to death by lethal injection in the southern state of Georgia for the murder of a policeman.
"The application for stay of execution of sentence of death ... is granted" the highest court in the United States said in a statement issued 90 minutes before Davis was due to die.
"We are deeply grateful for this stay of execution for Troy Davis and we very much appreciate that the merits of his case for innocence are being taken seriously by the United States Supreme Court," Sarah Totonchi, chairwoman of Georgians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty (GFADP), said in a statement.
What were to have been vigils around the state of Georgia were cancelled and replaced by celebrations on the steps of the state legislative building, GFADP said.
Lawyers for 39-year-old Davis, who has been on death row since 1991 for the murder of white policeman Mark MacPhail, had pressed the US Supreme Court in Washington to take a motion for a new trial after judicial authorities in Georgia threw out appeals for clemency.
Seven out of nine witnesses who gave evidence at Davis' trial have recanted or changed their testimony, which was the backbone of the prosecution's case in the absence of a murder weapon, fingerprints and DNA.
The witnesses said statements implicating Davis had been coerced by strongarm police tactics.
The US high court was not in session this week and the request was heard Tuesday by just one member of the court, conservative justice Clarence Thomas.
Amnesty International USA also welcomed the Supreme Court order to stay the execution, and slammed the state of Georgia for trying the "ram this execution through."
"For reasons that are unfathomable, Chatham County officials seemed doggedly determined to ram this execution through before justice could fully run its course," AIUSA executive director Larry Cox said in a statement.
"We are grateful that the US Supreme Court has shown the foresight to stay the execution. We hope that it takes up the case and looks at it with fresh eyes, marking the first time that evidence pointing to Davis' innocence will have been heard in a court of law," he said.
Davis had originally been sentenced to die in July last year, but he was granted a last-minute stay of execution then by the Georgia Board of Pardons and Parole.
Earlier this month, however, the parole board issued a decision denying Davis clemency.
On Monday it affirmed that decision, and the Georgia Supreme Court on the same day voted six to one to deny a stay of execution for Davis, deferring to the US high court.
"This case gets at the heart of some real dark issues of Georgia's criminal justice system," Totonchi told AFP by phone.
"If they acknowledge the problems with this case, they are also admitting there are things like police misconduct and police coercion, and I think it's easier to go along with the status quo than to admit that we have these problems and ultimately have to solve them," she said.
International figures including former US president Jimmy Carter, Nobel Peace Prize winner Desmond Tutu of South Africa and Pope Benedict XVI have spoken against Davis' execution.
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