ATLANTA The United States Supreme Court issued a stay of execution on Tuesday for a Georgia inmate convicted of killing a police officer in 1989, two hours before his scheduled death by lethal injection.
The inmate, Troy A. Davis, 39, was convicted of murdering Mark MacPhail, a Savannah police officer. The Supreme Court, which issued the stay without explanation, will decide Monday whether to grant Mr. Davis’s appeal for a new trial.
The case has drawn national and global attention, largely because seven of the nine witnesses at Mr. Davis’s trial later recanted their testimony, with two saying they felt pressured by the police to testify against Mr. Davis. Prosecutors presented no physical evidence, the murder weapon was never found, and three witnesses said another man later admitted to the killing.
Several world leaders, including former President Jimmy Carter, Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Pope Benedict XVI have challenged the fairness of Mr. Davis’s conviction. But prosecutors have rejected the claims of the recanting witnesses, and both the Georgia Supreme Court and the state Board of Paroles and Pardons have denied requests for new trials and clemency.
The stay may be in place for only a brief time. On Monday, if the Supreme Court chooses not to hear Mr. Davis’s appeal, the stay will automatically terminate, and Georgia will be able to proceed with the execution.
If the court agrees to hear the case, the stay will remain in place until it issues its decision.
Mr. Davis’s lawyers have asked the court to use his case to decide whether the Eighth Amendment bars the execution of the innocent. The case, his lawyers wrote in a petition to the justices in July, “allows this court an opportunity to determine what it has only before assumed: that the execution of an innocent man is constitutionally abhorrent.”
In a 1993 decision, Herrera v. Collins, Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist wrote for the court that “we may assume, for the sake of argument in deciding this case, that in a capital case a truly persuasive demonstration of ‘actual innocence’ made after trial would render the execution of a defendant unconstitutional.” The death row inmate in that case, Leonel T. Herrera, had not made a sufficient demonstration, the court ruled. He was executed the same year.
Under the court’s rules, it takes four votes to hear a case but five to grant a stay.
In Jackson, Ga., where Mr. Davis had been scheduled for death at 7 p.m., dozens of supporters celebrated the court’s ruling.
“I’m very happy I didn’t have to watch my client die tonight,” said Jason Ewart, the lead defense lawyer.
Martina Correia, Mr. Davis’s sister, called the stay an answer to her brother’s prayers.
“I was so very thankful for my brother,” Ms. Correia said. “When I saw him today, his prayer was that God not let him be executed. People from all over the world have been called and said their prayers are with us.”
Kent Scheidegger, a death penalty expert at the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation in California, called the Supreme Court’s intervention “not usual but not too rare either.”
“I’m not terribly surprised,” Mr. Scheidegger said. “This fellow has enough of a claim of innocence that many people say he’s innocent.”
Jared Feuer, the Southern regional director of Amnesty International, said he was elated by the court’s decision. “Our hope is that fundamental questions of guilt and innocence will finally now be heard,” he said.