Alabama

Alabama

Capital Sentencing Reform Bills Advance in Florida, Alabama

Legislative committees in Florida and Alabama have voted to advance bills that would reform capital sentencing procedures in those states that have been the subject of extensive constitutional challenges. In Florida, the Senate Criminal Justice Committee by a vote of 6-0 approved a bill that would require a jury to unanimously recommend a death sentence before the trial judge could sentence a defendant to death. The bill would bring Florida's sentencing procedure in line with a Florida Supreme Court ruling that had declared unconstitutional death sentences that were imposed after one or more jurors had recommended a life sentence. In Alabama, the Senate Judiciary Committee approved a bill to end Alabama's practice of judicial override. Alabama is currently the only state that allows judges to override a jury's recommendation of a life sentence and impose a death sentence. Senator Dick Brewbaker (R - Montgomery), who sponsored the bill, raised concerns about political pressure on elected judges. A majority of overrides in the last 10 years happened in election years. “I’m not saying anyone has any evil intent,” Brewbaker said. “I’m not arguing about constitutionality, but there’s no way to take politics out of politics. It’s like taking the wet out of the water. It can’t be done.” According to research by the Equal Justice Initiative, judges have used their override power to impose death sentences over jury recommendations for life 101 times, but overrode jury recommendations for death and imposed life sentences just 11 times. The U.S. Supreme Court has remanded four death penalty cases to Alabama's courts for a determination of the constitutionality of the state's sentencing practices—including judicial override. The Alabama courts have upheld the practice, and in December 2016, Alabama executed Ronald Smith despite a 7-5 jury recommendation that he be sentenced to life.

Alabama Faith Leaders Hold Panel on Death Penalty, Spotlight 'Rocky' Myers' Case of Possible Innocence

Inspired by the case of Robin "Rocky" Myers (pictured), an intellectually disabled and possibly innocent Alabama death row prisoner whom an elected state judge sentenced to death despite a 9-3 jury recommendation for life, a panel of faith leaders gathered in Montgomery, Alabama to discuss religious views on the death penalty and the intersection of faith and justice. Before the discussion began, the faith leaders and the audience viewed a screening of a new documentary on Myers' case describing why his lawyers believe he is innocent. The documentary explained that no forensic evidence links Myers to the crime and that the prosecution witness who identified him has since recanted his testimony. Myers' case also highlights other problems in the death penalty system. A neuropsychologist who evaluated Myers diagnosed him with intellectual disability, a condition that would make him ineligible for execution, but courts have not granted him relief. His disability hindered Myers' opportunities to have his appeals heard. His attorney abandoned him without notice, and Myers, who cannot read, did not know his appeal deadlines had expired until a fellow inmate read him a notification letter from the state. Finally, Myers' jury voted 9-3 that he should be sentenced to life, but—in a practice no state other than Alabama still allows— the trial judge overrode the jury's recommendation and sentenced Myers to death. After the film presented Myers' story, leaders from a variety of faith traditions led a discussion about justice and capital punishment. The multi-faith panel included representatives of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam and featured Rabbi Elliot Stevens, Sister Gilda Marie Bell, a Catholic nun of the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament, and Aya Zaied, a youth leader for the East Montgomery Islamic Society. Zaied summarized Islamic views on the issue, saying, "If you claim Islam, … then justice is your responsibility. We try to teach that to our children really young so they understand if (someone is) hurting, then I’m hurting. We’re all in this together."

Directed to Reconsider its Death Penalty Statute, Alabama Appeals Court Upholds Constitutionality of 3 Death Sentences

Directed by the U.S. Supreme Court to reconsider its rulings upholding the death sentences imposed upon four Alabama defendants, the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals affirmed three of the death sentences on December 16.  The state court ruled that the death sentences imposed upon Ronnie Kirksey, Corey Wimbley, and Ryan Gerald Russell do not violate the Supreme Court's January 16, 2016 decision in Hurst v. Florida. It has not yet ruled on the constitutionality of the death sentence imposed on Bart Johnson in the fourth case. In Hurst, the Supreme Court ruled that “[t]he Sixth Amendment requires a jury, not a judge, to find each fact necessary to impose a sentence of death. A jury’s mere recommendation is not enough.” In that case, the Court struck down Florida's capital sentencing law, ruling that it unconstitutionally reserved for the judge, rather than the jury, the ultimate power to decide whether the prosecution had proven the existence of aggravating circumstances that would make the defendant eligible for the death penalty. In late January, three Justices noted in connection with a decision denying a stay of execution to Alabama death-row prisoner Christopher Brooks that Hurst had overruled the decisions upon which the Court had relied in previously upholding Alabama's judge-sentencing statute. The Court later vacated the Alabama court's decisions upholding the four death sentences, sending them back to the Alabama courts for reconsideration in light of the Hurst decision. In August and October, the Delaware and Florida Supreme Courts ruled that other portions of their statutes that permitted judges to override jury recommendations of a life sentence or impose death sentences after a non-unanimous jury sentencing recommendation violated Hurst, leaving Alabama as the only state that continues to allow either practice. In issuing its opinions, the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals distinguished its law from the Florida statute the Supreme Court declared unconstitutional in Hurst, saying that as part of the decision finding a defendant guilty of capital murder, Alabama juries already unanimously find facts that prove a penalty-phase aggravating circumstance and make the defendant eligible for the death penalty. Without addressing the rulings of the Delaware and Florida state courts, the court of appeals upheld Alabama's provisions allowing non-unanimous juries to recommend a death sentence and permitting judges to override a jury's recommendation of a life sentence. The state court said that the weighing of aggravating and mitigating circumstances is not a finding of fact, so Hurst does not apply to the jury's sentencing recommendation or the sentence ultimately imposed by the judge. It also noted that in Kirksey's and Russell's cases, the sentencing juries had unanimously recommended death.

Ronald Smith Heaves and Coughs During Alabama Execution After Tie Vote in Supreme Court Denies Him A Stay

After a divided U.S. Supreme Court twice temporarily halted the execution of Ronald Bert Smith, Jr. (pictured), Alabama put Smith to death on December 8 in a 34-minute execution in which Smith heaved, coughed, clenched his left fist, and opened one eye during one 13-minute period. Smith's jury had recommended by a vote of 7-5 that he be sentenced to life without parole, but, in a practice permitted by no other state, his trial judge overrode that recommendation and sentenced Smith to death. At the time his execution was scheduled to begin, Smith had a stay motion and a petition for certiorari pending in the U.S. Supreme Court arguing that judicial override violated his Sixth Amendment right to a jury trial and was unconstitutionally arbitrary under the Eighth Amendment. After Alabama announced its intention to proceed with the execution despite the pending petition, Justice Thomas granted a temporary stay, a procedure to allow time for the full Court to act. Half the Court—enough to review a case—voted to grant Smith a stay, but five votes are required to halt an execution. Smith's lawyers then filed a motion for reconsideration, criticizing as arbitrary the rule that allows four votes to grant review of a case, but requires five to stay an execution. His motion argued that when four justices vote to hear a case, "all certiorari petitioners, public and private parties in civil and criminal cases of every kind" are entitled to have their cases reviewed except condemned prisoners facing an imminent execution. He asked the Court to reconsider his stay motion "[b]ecause the Court’s inconsistent practices respecting 5-4 stay denials in capital cases clash with the appearance and reality both of equal justice under law and of sound judicial decision-making." Justice Thomas granted another temporary stay so the full Court could consider that motion; after about an hour, the Court denied the request and also rejected a last-minute challenge to the state's lethal injection procedure. Alabama used a three-drug procedure in its execution, beginning with midazolam, a sedative that has contributed to botched executions in several other states and that was the subject of a challenge before the Supreme Court in 2015. Though midazolam is intended to render the inmate unconscious and therefore protect against the pain and suffering that would be experienced from the second and third drugs, witnesses reported that Smith showed signs of consciousness after it was administered.

Alabama to Execute Ronald Smith Despite Jury's Vote For Life Sentence

Alabama is set to execute Ronald Smith on December 8, although the sentencing jury in his case recommended that he be sentenced to life. Under a practice that is no longer permitted in any other state, Smith's judge overrode the jury's sentencing recommendation and imposed a death sentence. As his execution approaches, Smith has filed a petition in the U.S. Supreme challenging the constitutionality of Alabama's law. He argues it violates both his right to have a jury determination of all facts that are a prerequisite to imposing the death penalty, and a national consensus against judicial disregard of jury capital sentencing verdicts. Smith's petition notes that "Alabama is the only state that allows a judge to sentence a defendant to death when the jury has recommended a sentence of life." His lawyers also have petitioned Governor Robert Bentley for clemency, quoting a juror who said, "It was very painful to make such a difficult decision, only to have the judge disregard it." A recent report by the Brennan Center on Justice found that "electoral pressures influence judges' decisions in capital cases," including Alabama's practice of judicial override, which accounts for one-fifth of Alabama's death row.  Earlier this year, state courts in Florida and Delaware--the only other states that had permitted judicial override--struck down sentencing statutes that permitted judges to impose death sentences in the face of jury recommendations for life or non-unanimous recommendations for death. These decisions grew out of the U.S. Supreme Court's January 2016 ruling in Hurst v. Florida that "[t]he Sixth Amendment requires a jury, not a judge, to find each fact necessary to impose a sentence of death." Smith's attorneys argue that Alabama's judicial override practice violates Hurst. Alabama's attorney general disagrees, arguing that the Alabama statute is different from Florida's because it requires the jury to find the existence of an aggravating factor making the defendant eligible for death. Smith's lawyers also argue that "[t]his life-and-death decision is being made by judges facing intense electoral pressure," rendering such overrides unconstitutionally arbitrary. Smith was never able to obtain review of these issues in federal court because his attorney made an error in paying a filing fee. Though his claims were filed by the deadline, his lawyer, who was on probation for public intoxication at the time, assumed he did not have to pay a filing fee of $154 because his client was indigent. In addition to his judicial override challenge, Smith is also part of a group of death row inmates challenging Alabama's new lethal injection protocol, which would use midazolam, a drug involved in several botched executions over the last few years.

OUTLIER COUNTIES: Alabama's Leading Death Sentencing County Elects Prosecutors Who Oppose Capital Punishment

Jefferson County, Alabama is among both the 2% of counties that account for more than half of all executions in the U.S. and are responsible for more than half of all prisoners on death row across the country. It led the state in new death sentences from 2010-2015, putting more people on death row than 99.5% of U.S. counties. All five of the defendants sentenced to death in those cases were Black. But the county may soon see a decline in death sentences as voters appear to have ousted the county's two elected district attorneys in favor of prosecutors who say they are "personally opposed" to the death penalty and plan to use it rarely. Charles Todd Henderson was elected as district attorney of Jefferson's Birmingham division, and Lynneice Washington leads a tight race in the Bessemer division, where votes will be recounted on November 21. Henderson has criticized Alabama's judicial override policy, which allows judges to impose a death sentence even when a jury recommends life, saying "We serve at the will of the people .... We should honor what the people say." Alabama is the only state to permit such overrides and Jefferson County judges overrode jury's recommendations for life in 44% of the 18 death penalty cases from the county that were decided on direct appeal between 2006-2015. All 18 cases involved a non-unanimous jury, an outlier practice that was struck down by state courts in Delaware and Florida this year, leaving Alabama as the last state to allow it, and in every one of those cases, defense lawyers presented less than one day’s worth of mitigation evidence. Henderson also said he supports reviewing current Jefferson County death penalty cases for possible wrongful convictions, citing the case of Anthony Ray Hinton, who was released in 2015 after spending 30 years on death row. Hinton's trial was tainted by racial bias, inadequate representation, and junk science. Washington echoed Henderson's concerns, saying, "I am personally opposed to the death penalty because there have been so many people who were put on death row who were later found to be innocent." In addition to Hinton, two other wrongfully convicted death row prisoners from Jefferson County also have been released. Wesley Quick, who was just 18 years old at the time of the murder for which he was twice wrongly sentenced to death, was acquitted of all charges in his third trial in 2003. Montez Spradley was sentenced to death by a judge who overrode a 10-2 jury recommendation for life. It was later discovered that a star witnesses for the prosecution—Spradley's disgrunted ex-girlfriend—had been paid $10,000 for her testimony, and although the judge had personally approved half of that payment, neither she nor the prosecution disclosed it to the defense. Spradley entered a no-contest plea in exchange for his freedom in 2015.  

Voters Oust Prosecutors in Outlier Death Penalty Counties, Retain Governors Who Halted Executions

Prosecutors in three counties known for their outlier practices on the death penalty were defeated by challengers running on reform platforms, while voters in Oregon and Washington re-elected governors who acted to halt executions. In Hillsborough County, Florida, Democrat Andrew Warren defeated Republican incumbent Mark Ober (pictured, l.). Warren pledged to seek the death penalty less often and establish a unit to uncover wrongful convictions. In Harris County, Texas, incumbent Devon Anderson (pictured, r.) was defeated by Democratic challenger Kim Ogg. Ogg ran on a platform of broad criminal justice reform and had received support from the Black Lives Matter movement. Harris County leads the nation in executions and is second only to Los Angeles in the number of people on its death row. Ogg had said that the death penalty had created "a terrible image for our city and our county" and pledged that, "[u]nder an Ogg admninistration, you will see very few death penalty prosecutions." Brandon Falls, District Attorney of Jefferson County, Alabama, lost his seat to Charles Todd Henderson, who does not support the death penalty and said he plans to “bring about real criminal justice reform.” Hillsborough, Harris, and Jefferson all rank among the 2% of U.S. counties responsible for a majority of death row inmates in the U.S., and were among the 16 most prolific death sentencing counties in the U.S. between 2010-2015. “People are scrutinizing their local criminal justice systems, and people are realizing how much power state attorneys have, and they are seeing elections as a way to change those results,” Deborrah Brodsky, director of the Project on Accountable Justice at Florida State University, said. In gubernatorial elections, voters re-elected governors who had halted executions in their states. Washington voters re-elected Governor Jay Inslee, who imposed a death penalty moratorium, and Oregon voters gave a full term to Governor Kate Brown, who had extended her predecessor's moratorium and pledged to keep the moratorium in effect if elected. In North Carolina, voters defeated incumbent Governor Pat McCrory, who had supported efforts to repeal the state's Racial Justice Act. 

Supreme Court Stays Execution of Tommy Arthur in Alabama

The U.S. Supreme Court has stayed the execution of Tommy Arthur, who was scheduled to be executed in Alabama at 6:00 p.m. Central Time on November 3. Around 10:30 p.m. Eastern, the Court first issued a temporary stay of execution through Circuit Justice Clarence Thomas "pending further order" of the Court. Anticipating a second ruling by the Court, Alabama continued preparations for the execution. Then, just before midnight in Washington, the Court issued a full stay to permit it to consider a petition for writ of certiorari Arthur had filed earlier in the day. Arthur's lawyers had filed two stay applications and petitions for writs of certiorari. One petition sought review of the Alabama Supreme Court's summary dismissal of his challenge to the constitutionality of Alabama's death penalty statute under the Supreme Court's January 2016 decision in Hurst v. Florida. Hurst struck down Florida's death penalty statute because it required a judge, rather than a jury, to find critical facts that were a prerequisite to imposing the death penalty, and Arthur had argued that Alabama's statute suffered from the same defect. The other petition sought review of the denial of Arthur's lethal-injection challenge by a divided 2-1 panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit. In its opinion, that court had ruled that Arthur had not met the burden imposed by the Supreme Court's 2015 decision in Glossip v. Gross of showing that an alternative method of execution was available to Alabama because the firing squad -- his proposed alternative -- was not "readily available" under Alabama law. The dissent wrote: "By misreading an Alabama statute, the Majority creates a conflict between the claim and state law. The Majority then resolves that faux conflict in favor of state law, taking the unprecedented step of ascribing to states the power to legislatively foreclose constitutional relief. These missteps nullify countless prisoners’ Eighth Amendment right to a humane execution." The Supreme Court granted Mr. Arthur's stay application in the lethal-injection case. Four Justices voted to stay the execution, with Chief Justice Roberts providing the fifth vote "as a courtesy." Justices Thomas and Alito dissented. Without the time constraints imposed by the death warrant, the Justices can now consider whether to grant review in the case. This was the seventh time Mr. Arthur's execution has been stayed.

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