Rocky Myers (pictured) may be innocent and intellectually disabled, and his jury voted to sentence him to life. So why is he facing execution in Alabama?

In the February 2020 episode of Discussions with DPIC, members of Myers’ legal team tell the story of how racial bias, poor representation, and judicial override led to the possible wrongful conviction of an intellectually disabled man. Assistant Federal Defender Kacey Keeton and Investigator Sara Romano speak with DPIC Managing Director Anne Holsinger and describe the shoddy evidence used to convict Myers, his abandonment by his original appellate attorney, and the legal hurdles that have blocked his claims of innocence and intellectual disability from being heard in court.

Rocky Myers, a Black man, was convicted of the 1991 murder of his white neighbor, Ludie Mae Tucker. His jury had 11 white members and one Black member. Myers’ own lawyer told the jury going into the neighborhood where Myers lived was “literally walking into hell” and compared the people who lived there to animals. Keeton recounts that defense counsel “apologized to the jury that he was going to have to be talking about this place, because he knew that wasn’t how they lived. So he immediately, from the beginning, set up this ‘us versus them,’ and put his own client on the side that was the ‘other,’ the ‘different.’” Members of the jury talked about Myers as a “thug” and a “n****r,” and his defense attorney’s notes use a racial slur to characterize jury members, describing one juror as a “n****r-hater.”

No physical evidence linked Myers to the crime. Witnesses gave conflicting accounts of the crime, and one key witness, Marzell Ewing, has acknowledged that he lied about Myers’ involvement in the murder in exchange for not being charged with a car theft in an unrelated matter. The weakness of the evidence against Myers led some members of the jury to question his guilt. According to juror Mae Puckett, she and the other jurors who were not convinced of Myers’ guilt felt pressured to convict him, but made a deal with the other jurors that they would convict if the rest of the jury recommend a life sentence. The jury voted 9-3 for life, but the judge overrode their recommendation and sentenced Myers to death.

Although Alabama ended the practice of judicial override in 2017, Myers is one of 32 people currently on Alabama’s death row whose judges overrode jury recommendations for life. Each of Alabama’s six death-row exonerations involved judicial override, non-unanimous recommendations for death, or a waiver of jury sentencing. Keeton explains that non-unanimous sentencing recommendations suggest “that there was at least some kind of concern” on the part of jurors. “Maybe it didn’t rise to the level of reasonable doubt, but it was a doubt.”

After his conviction, Myers received pro bono appellate representation from a lawyer in Tennessee who abruptly stopped representing Myers and gave him no notice that he was doing so. Myers only learned he had been abandoned when he received “a letter stating that they’re going to move for an execution date.” Because of his intellectual disability, Myers reads at about a third-grade level, so “he couldn’t read the letter, he had a friend on the row help him read the letter.” At that point, he sought help and his case was referred to the federal defender’s office. But the damage to his appeal already had been done: the lawyer had missed crucial filing deadlines. Myers’ new lawyers asked the court not to hold his attorney’s abandonment against him, but the court said the intellectually disabled man had failed to exercise “diligence” by calling his attorney regularly and keeping track of deadlines in his case. However, Keeton said, one symptom of Myers’ intellectual disability is difficulty keeping track of time and deadlines. “The court put a burden on him that was impossible for him to meet,” she said, and as a result, “[n]one of his issues have really been presented in court.”

At this point, Myers has a pending appeal challenging his sentence in light of Alabama’s abolition of judicial override. His only other legal remedy is clemency, which has been granted in only one Alabama death-penalty case in the modern era. His legal team explained why they’re taking the unusual strategy of publicizing his case, saying, “Rocky’s desire is that maybe somebody else can be helped by his story. That’s why our clemency plan is not your standard writing a petition just to the governor, but trying to make sure people hear his story, know his name, and understand that maybe there is something that they can do to prevent another Rocky from happening.”