Federal Court Finds Intentional Misconduct by Alabama Prosecutor, But Lets Death Penalty Stand

Finding that an Alabama prosecutor with a history of misconduct had "intentionally" made improper comments in the capital trial of Artez Hammonds (pictured) "in flagrant violation" of a pre-trial order warning him not to do so, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit nevertheless denied Hammonds's appeal and permitted his conviction and death sentence to stand. While the court noted that the prosecutor, District Attorney Douglas Valeska "had been reprimanded in prior cases for engaging in precisely the same unconstitutional and unethical behavior" and said it was "very disturbed" by the prosecutor's deliberate unconstitutional references to Hammonds's decision not to testify and to his prior incarceration, the court ultimately held that the comments did not affect the jury's verdict and denied him relief. While in prison for an unrelated offense, Hammonds was tried, convicted, and sentenced to death in Houston County in 1997 for the rape and murder of a white woman in a high-profile case that had gone unsolved for six years. Despite a population of only 100,000, the county currently has 18 people on its death row. As of January 1, 2013, its death row ranked 30th in size among all counties in the United States, even though it was less than one-quarter the size of any other county in the top thirty, and two-thirds of those counties had populations of more than one million. Valeska served as Houston County's district attorney for three decades until his retirement in January 2017, obtaining more than a dozen death sentences during that period. A study by the Equal Justice Initiative in May of 2008 reported a 16-fold increase in the number of death sentences in Houston County between 1995 and 2008, while Valeska was in office, over the death sentences imposed in the previous two decades. During his time in office, Valeska was found to have violated the rights of capital defendants on numerous occasions by unconstitutionally striking African Americans from death penalty juries because of their race and making improper inflammatory comments during trial. Because of this history, Hammonds's trial lawyer specifically requested the court, before the trial started, to order Valeska to refrain from commenting on Hammonds's decision to exercise his Fifth Amendment right not to testify. But, as the Eleventh Circuit wrote, "neither the Constitution nor a direct order from the court inhibited Valeska" from improperly commenting on Hammonds's choice not to testify. The court critcized the Alabama Attorney General's office, which represented the state during the appeal, for "perpetuat[ing] the charade that Valeska did not intend" to violate Hammonds's rights, saying that the state attorney's "insistence on defending this improper conduct implicitly condones the unethical tactics that Valeska used" and invites other prosecutors to engage in similar "unsavory conduct." The court provided a copy of its opinion to the Alabama State Bar to review Valeska's conduct for possible disciplinary action.

("Marilyn Mitchell killer's appeal denied in federal court," Dothan Eagle, October 19, 2017; K. Curtis, "These convicted Houston County killers await death," WTVY, October 5, 2017; Bert, "AL: Claims of Race Discrimination May Continue to Surface Long After Houston County Prosecutor Doug Valeska Is Gone," The Open File, December 29, 2016; S. Dewan and A. Lehren, "Alabama Prosecutor Sets the Penalties and Fills the Coffers," New York Times, December 13, 2016; Study Reveals Geographic Disparities in Death Sentencing Among Alabama Counties, Equal Justice Initiative, May 1, 2008.) Read the Eleventh Circuit opinion. See Prosecutorial Misconduct.