At the hearing, five witnesses gave significantly different evidence than they did in the 1991 trial that convicted Davis. In affidavits signed after the sentencing, multiple witnesses said police pressure forced them to wrongly implicate Davis.
Jason Ewart, Davis's lawyer, has long argued that the courts have ignored new developments in the case, including the fact that seven of nine main witnesses recanted their testimony. The Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (AEDPA), a federal law passed in 1996 to limit appeals and expedite death sentences, forced federal courts to reject Davis's pleas on procedural grounds, said legal experts.
"People talk about one recantation and they're skeptical about it," Ewart said after the Board's announcement. "But when you get many and they're very similar, people start to have questions."
Davis, 38, a former coach in the Savannah Police Athletic League who had signed up for the Marines, was sentenced to die in 1991 after being convicted of killing Mark Allen MacPhail, an off-duty police officer, in a Savannah parking lot. His fight to overturn his conviction has been hampered by a cut by the federal government in state defender organizations' funding, as well as by the passage of the restrictive AEDPA.
On Friday, Georgia Superior Court Judge Penny Haas Freesemann rejected Davis's last-minute appeal, saying that the recanted testimony did not provide justification for a new trial. Georgia prosecutors have maintained that Davis has already had opportunities in court to present his evidence.
While Davis no longer faces imminent death, the stay of execution does not mean he will go free. Ewart said the board's decision gives his defense team time to gather more evidence before likely making another appearance before the board, which can commute Davis' sentence to life in prison or allow the execution to proceed.
"Obviously it's way too early and we have to get to work, but we have some breathing room," Ewart said. He added that the overwhelming media attention kept several witnesses on Davis's behalf from testifying today.
Ewart was talking with TIME when he learned of the stay of execution. He was lauding the testimony at the hearing of civil rights advocate U.S. Rep. John Lewis, the Georgia Democrat who was severely beaten during civil rights marches in the 1960s. "I do not know Troy Anthony Davis," Lewis said in testimony, according to prepared remarks. "I do not know if he is guilty of the charges of which he has been convicted. But I do know that nobody should be put to death based on the evidence we now have in this case."
Davis was speaking by telephone with his sister, Martina Correia, when she learned of the Board's decision. He had already been moved to the death chamber, Correia said. "He was so elated, so prayerful, and he was thanking everyone for what they were doing for him," Correia said. "He's so grateful they're not going to kill him tomorrow."
The slain officer's widow, Joan MacPhail, decried the ruling. "I believe they are setting a precedent for all criminals that it is perfectly fine to kill a cop and get away with it," she said. "By making us wait, it's another sock in the stomach. It's tearing us up."
The Associated Press contributed to this report