ATLANTA — Two weeks after Georgia put to death Troy Davis despite an international outcry from supporters who believe his conviction was based on faulty eyewitness testimony, state officials are preparing to execute another death row inmate who insists he did not commit the crime.
Prosecutors say they have no doubt Marcus Ray Johnson raped and stabbed Angela Sizemore to death outside an Albany nightclub in March 1994, and appeals courts have upheld his conviction and death sentence. Johnson's defense attorneys say there are "troubling inconsistencies" in the evidence presented at trial, and claim eyewitness statements that linked him to the crime are unreliable.
The Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles heard arguments from Johnson's defense team Monday but did not immediately issue a decision. His attorneys also plan to ask a Georgia judge on Tuesday to order new DNA testing for Johnson to stave off the execution, and they say no physical evidence links Johnson to the woman's murder.
"Based on this lack of forensic evidence identifying Mr. Johnson as the perpetrator, the state could only rely on circumstantial evidence consisting of four questionable eyewitness identifications of Mr. Johnson in the area where Ms. Sizemore's body was found," said a court motion filed last week by Johnson's attorneys.
The concerns echo the arguments made by Davis' supporters. He spent years trying to persuade judges and Georgia officials that he was innocent before he was executed Sept. 21. Laura Moye of Amnesty International USA, the advocacy group which helped lead the movement to halt the Davis execution, said there were "troubling similarities" with the two cases.
"We are deeply troubled to see the state of Georgia prepare to execute another prisoner while serious doubts about his guilt are unresolved," said Moye.
Sizemore and Johnson were together the night of March 23, 1994 at an Albany nightclub called Fundamentals, where Johnson was playing pool. The two were both drinking heavily, witnesses said, and soon they were spotted kissing in one of the booths. They were spotted leaving the bar early the next morning, and headed south toward a bar where Johnson had worked.
The next day, a man walking his dog discovered her battered body inside her white SUV parked behind an Albany apartment complex. She had been stabbed 41 times with a small, dull knife and suffered severe internal injuries when she was sexually assaulted with a pecan tree branch.
Police quickly honed in on Johnson, and two witnesses told investigators they saw Johnson walking from the area where the victim's SUV was parked. He was arrested less than 24 hours after the killing.
Johnson told authorities he led Sizemore to a grassy vacant lot where they had consensual sex, and that he then "kind of lost it" and punched her in the face during an argument. But Johnson said he immediately left after the argument and headed home to collapse on his front yard, where he woke up the next morning. He insisted that he did not kill her.
DNA testing matched the victim's blood to Johnson's leather jacket, and authorities said his pocketknife matched the wounds discovered on her body. He also had scratches on his hands, arms and neck. But Johnson's lawyers say he wasn't involved in the brutality that claimed her life. They say investigators never found her blood on his knife, and only trace amounts of blood on his jacket.
On Tuesday, Johnson's legal team is scheduled to ask a Dougherty County judge to order more DNA testing on samples collected at the scene, including saliva samples, fingernail clippings and several hairs collected from the crime scene that defense attorneys say wasn't tested.
The filing also contends that bruises on her body indicate that multiple people were involved in the killing, and that new evidence indicates two weapons could have been used to stab her. Investigators who searched the car found a hair sample and fingerprint that matched neither Johnson nor Sizemore, only adding to the uncertainty of the case, the filing said.
"The lingering questions regarding the identity of Ms. Sizemore's killer makes this case precisely the type that Georgia's DNA statute was enacted for," the filing said.
State attorneys counter in court filings that Johnson should have filed this request sooner and contend that no DNA testing is warranted because the evidence at trial was overwhelming.
Other arguments Johnson's attorneys have made over the years have been repeatedly rejected by appellate courts. An 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals panel turned down his arguments that his trial lawyers were ineffective because they failed to bring up evidence of his childhood problems. The Georgia Supreme Court ruled against a similar appeal, and the U.S. Supreme Court has twice refused to hear his case.
Johnson's execution date was set just hours after Davis was put to death for the 1989 murder of off-duty police officer Mark MacPhail, and the timing of the announcement frustrated many death penalty opponents.
Davis said he was innocent, and his supporters said that several of the witnesses who helped convict him disputed all or parts of their testimony. Prosecutors and MacPhail's family, however, said justice was finally served after years of delays.