Supporters of 39-year-old Troy Davis have called for a new trial as seven of the nine witnesses who helped put him on death row recanted their testimony. Protesters had arrived by the busload to protest the execution, carrying signs with slogans like "Justice for Troy Davis" and wearing blue T-shirts emblazoned with "I am Troy Davis." A crowd of about 50 erupted in cheers when the stay, granted around 5:20 p.m., was announced.
The Rev. Al Sharpton had accompanied members of Davis' family to the protest, including Davis' mother, Virginia.
Prosecutors have labeled the witness statements "suspect," and courts had previously refused requests for a new trial.
The execution had been scheduled for 7 p.m. EDT.
The stay will remain in effect while the court considers Davis' appeal. Davis wants the high court to order a judge to hear from the witnesses who recanted their testimony and others who say another man confessed to the crime.
Influential advocates, including former President Jimmy Carter and South Africa Archbishop Desmond Tutu, insist that there's enough doubt about his guilt to merit a new trial.
A divided Georgia Supreme Court has twice rejected his request for a new trial, and had rejected his appeal to delay the execution Monday afternoon. The Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles also turned down his bid for clemency.
Davis was convicted of the murder of 27-year-old officer Mark MacPhail, who was working off-duty as a security guard at a bus station.
MacPhail had rushed to help a homeless man who had been pistol-whipped at a nearby parking lot, and was shot twice when he approached Davis and two other men.
Witnesses identified Davis as the shooter, and at the 1991 trial, prosecutors said he wore a "smirk on his face" as he fired the gun.
But Davis' lawyers say new evidence proves their client was a victim of mistaken identity. Besides those who have recanted their testimony, three others who did not testify have said Sylvester "Red" Coles who testified against Davis at his trial confessed to the killing.
Coles refused to talk about the case when contacted by The Associated Press during a 2007 Chatham County court appearance and has no listed phone number.
Prosecutors have contended in court hearings the case is closed. They also say some of the witness affidavits simply repeat what a trial jury has already heard, while others are irrelevant because they come from witnesses who never testified.
Meanwhile, a man was set to be executed Tuesday in Florida barring a last-minute intervention by the U.S. Supreme Court. Richard "Ric Ric" Henyard, 34, was convicted of the 1993 shooting deaths of two sisters 7-year-old Jamilya Lewis and Jasmine Lewis, 3.
Their mother, Dorothy Lewis, survived after she was raped and shot several times during a carjacking. Both girls, with their mother when they were seized by Henyard and an accomplice, were shot in the head when they cried out for her.