Alabama

Alabama

Finding Prosecutorial Misconduct, Alabama Courts Grant Relief from Two Capital Convictions

In one week, courts in unrelated cases have granted relief to two Alabama death row inmates because of prosecutorial misconduct. On March 11, Alabama Circuit Judge Robert Smith dismissed capital charges against ex-state trooper George Martin and barred his retrial because of the prosecution's "willful misconduct." Martin had been convicted for allegedly murdering his wife in a car fire. In 2000, jurors recommended that Martin be sentenced to life, but the trial judge overrode their recommendation and imposed a death sentence. In that trial, the prosecution asserted that Martin had burned his wife alive, but suppressed a witness's statement that she kept a can of gas in her car. It also willfully withheld evidence that it had shown photos of every black trooper from Mobile County to a white witness who had seen a "large black man" in a trooper's uniform in the vicinity of the car, and that the witness not only had not identified Martin (who is 5'6"), but had selected the picture of a different trooper. Judge Smith wrote, "If the Martin case is not one which is appropriate for dismissal, there may never be one....The affirmative use by the prosecutors of partial truths and untruths with knowledge," he wrote, constituted "willful misconduct." One week later, on March 18, the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals ordered a new trial for Derek Horton because the prosecution had improperly attempted "[t]o buttress its weak case" against Horton for the murder of a woman in a burglarized mobile home by presenting evidence of his past drug use and of an investigation against him for domestic violence. The court said this evidence of bad character was "superfluous to the State's case" and "served no purpose other than to paint Horton as a drug-using, drug-dealing criminal who had a propensity to commit violent crimes against women." The court found the use of this evidence especially prejudicial because the state had "produced no witnesses or direct evidence placing Horton at [the victim]'s mobile home at the time of the crime" and his fingerprints were not found on any of the murder weapon or any of the items taken from the mobile home or strewn about the highway in the vicinity of the location in which the victim's stolen car had been abandoned.

Florida Legislature Passes Bill Requiring Agreement of 10 Jurors Before Judge May Impose Death Sentence

UPDATE: Gov. Rick Scott signed the bill into law on March 7. Previously: The Florida legislature passed a bill on March 3 to restructure its death penalty statute in response to the U.S. Supreme Court's ruling in Hurst v. Florida, which declared the state's death penalty procedures unconstitutional. The bill modifies Florida's practice of permitting judges to impose death sentences without the unanimous agreement of jurors by requiring that at least ten jurors recommend death before the judge may impose a death penalty. It also directly addresses Hurst by requiring that jurors unanimously find any aggravating circumstances that the prosecution seeks to prove to make the defendant eligible for the death penalty. Previously, Florida judges made the determination whether the prosecution had proven aggravating circumstances that made the defendant eligible for the death penalty, and the statute permitted the judge to impose death based upon a simple majority recommendation or, in certain circumstances, when the jury had recommended life imprisonment. The new 10-2 requirement matches the standard applied in Alabama. Along with Delaware - which permits the court to impose death after a simple majority recommendation by the jury - these states stand alone in the country in allowing a death sentence after a jury's non-unanimous sentencing recommendation. Delaware and Alabama still permit judicial override. Delaware's system is currently under review by that state's highest court, and on March 3, an Alabama circuit court judge declared that state's sentencing procedure unconstitutional.

Alabama Judge Rules Capital Sentencing Scheme Unconstitutional

Jefferson County, Alabama Circuit Judge Tracie Todd (pictured) ruled on March 3 that Alabama's capital sentencing procedure violates the U.S. Constitution. Judge Todd barred the death penalty for four capital murder defendants, saying that Alabama's use of judicial override violates the Sixth Amendment. Under Alabama's system, at least 10 jurors must agree in order to recommend a death sentence, but a judge can override the jury's recommendation and impose death even if the jury recommended a life sentence. Because of this practice, Judge Todd said, "Alabama has become a clear outlier." She said the death penalty, "is being imposed in a wholly unconstitutional manner." In reading her ruling from the bench, the judge noted that Alabama has executed more defendants than states five times its size and questioned whether the partisan election of judges created a danger of judges imposing the death penalty due to political pressure. A 2011 report by the Equal Justice Initiative documented the effects of Alabama judicial overrides of jury life recommendations. More recently, a study by the Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Law and Justice at Harvard found that more than three-quarters of the death sentences imposed in Alabama in the past 5 years involved non-unanimous juries. Alabama, Delaware, and Florida are the only states that permit a judge to impose the death penalty after the jury has not unanimously recommended death. 

60 Minutes Profiles Life After Death Row for Exoneree Anthony Ray Hinton

On Sunday, January 10, 60 Minutes aired an interview with Anthony Ray Hinton, who was exonerated on April 3, 2015 after spending nearly 30 years on Alabama's death row. In the interview, Hinton described how issues of race permeated his case. Hinton told 60 Minutes correspondent Scott Pelley about a conversation he had with a police lieutenant after having been arrested: "I said, 'You got the wrong guy.' And he said, 'I don't care whether you did it or don't.' He said, 'But you gonna be convicted for it. And you know why?' I said, 'No.' He said, 'You got a white man. They gonna say you shot him. Gonna have a white D.A. We gonna have a white judge. You gonna have a white jury more than likely.' And he said, 'All of that spell conviction, conviction, conviction.' I said, 'Well, does it matter that I didn't do it?' He said, 'Not to me.'" Hinton went on to explain how he felt about the racial bias in his case: "I can't get over the fact that just because I was born black and someone that had the authority who happened to be white felt the need to send me to a cage and try to take my life for something that they knew that I didn't do." Bryan Stevenson, Hinton's attorney and the executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative, joined Hinton for the interview, and spoke about the systemic issues surrounding the case. "This isn't luck, this was a system, this was actually our justice system, it was our tax dollars who paid for the police officers who arrested Mr. Hinton. Our tax dollars that paid for the judge and the prosecutor that prosecuted him. That paid for the experts who got it wrong. That paid to keep him on death row for 30 years for a crime he didn't commit. This has nothing to do with luck. This has everything to do with the way we treat those who are vulnerable in our criminal justice system."

Harvard Law Professor Chronicles 'The Death Penalty's Last Stand'

In a recent article in Slate, Harvard Law School Professor Charles Ogletree, the executive director of the university's Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race and Justice, says "the death penalty is collapsing under the weight of its own corruption and cruelty." He emphasizes the increasing isolation of capital punishment to a few outlier jurisdictions, particularly highlighting Caddo Parish, Louisiana. Caddo Parish received national attention when, shortly after the exoneration of Glenn Ford, who was wrongfully convicted and spent 30 years on death row, District Attorney Dale Cox said the state should "kill more people." Ogletree described the legacy of racial violence and intimidation in the parish, including that Caddo Parish, which has been responsible for 8 of Louisiana's 12 death sentences since 2010, was "the site of more lynchings of black men than all but one other county In America." Until 2011, a Confederate flag flew atop a monument to the Confederacy outside the entrance to the parish courthouse in Shreveport where jurors reported for duty. In 2015, a study (click image to enlarge) found that Caddo prosecutors struck prospective black jurors at triple the rate of other jurors. Ogletree spotlighted a number of questionable death sentences imposed on Caddo defendants who may have been innocent and framed, were intellectually disabled or mentally ill teenagers, or who suffered from serious brain damage and mental illness, and who were provided systemically deficient representation. "Caddo offers us a microcosm of what remains of the death penalty in America today," Ogletree says. 33 jurisdictions have abolished the death penalty or not carried out an execution in more than 9 years. Just six states performed executions in 2015, and three-quarters of the people who were executed last year raised serious questions about mental health or innocence. Death sentences were at a record low (49), and 14, he said, came from two states - Alabama and Florida - that allow non-unanimous jury recommendations of death. Ogletree concludes, "The death penalty in America today is the death penalty of Caddo Parish—a cruel relic of a bygone and more barbarous era. We don’t need it, and I welcome its demise."

Alabama Inmate Dies on Death Row Before Federal Court Can Decide His Innocence Claim

Donnis Musgrove (pictured), an Alabama death row prisoner with a substantial claim of innocence, died of lung cancer on Alabama's death row on November 25, while his case was pending before a federal judge. Musgrove's attorneys had asked U.S. District Judge David Proctor to rule quickly because of Musgrove's medical condition. Musgrove and his co-defendant, David Rogers, who previously died on Alabama's death row, were sentenced to death in 1988. Rogers' lawyer, Tommy Nail - now a state court judge - said he believed Musgrove and Rogers "got a raw deal and I've always felt they were not guilty of this offense." He said the case shared "eerie" similarities with that of recent death row exoneree Anthony Ray Hinton: both cases were tried by the same prosecutor before the same judge, and the prosecution presented questionable weapons testimony from the same ballistics expert. The ballistics testimony in Hinton's case was contradicted by three other ballistics experts, and prosecutors decided not to retry him after saying they could not link the bullets from the crime to a gun that belonged to Hinton. Nail said the defendants in both cases also presented solid alibi evidence. Musgrove's attorneys argued that, in addition to similarly unreliable ballistics testimony, Musgrove's conviction was tainted by falsified eyewitness testimony, prosecutorial misconduct, and false testimony by a jailhouse informant who later recanted. Musgrove's attorney, Cissy Jackson, said "It was a privilege to know and represent Donnis. My husband and I have been working for his release since 1997, and we are so sorry that he did not live to be exonerated."

STUDIES: Requiring Jury Unanimity Would Decrease U.S. Death Sentences by 21%

The U.S. Supreme Court heard oral argument on October 13 in Hurst v. Florida, a case challenging provisions in Florida's death penalty statute that do not require jurors to unanimously agree to the facts that could subject a defendant to a death sentence or to reach unanimity before recommending that the judge sentence a defendant to death. Florida is one of just three states that does not require a unanimous jury verdict when sentencing someone to death. A study by the Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race and Justice at Harvard Law School found that requiring jury unanimity in Florida, Alabama, and Delaware would have caused a dramatic drop in death sentences over the last 5 years. Overall, the three states would have returned 26 death sentences since 2010, instead of 117 - a 77% drop - and Florida would have imposed 70% fewer death verdicts. The three states that do not require unanimity in death sentencing have produced a disproportionate share of the nation's death sentences, accounting for 28% of all U.S. death sentences since 2010. Had these states followed the sentencing system used by every other death penalty state, the total number of death sentences imposed in the United States  would have decreased by 21%. (Click image for full infographic.)

Former Alabama Death Row Inmate Freed on Evidence of Innocence "Glad to Be Alive"

Montez Spradley, sentenced to death by an Alabama judge in 2008 over a jury's 10-2 recommendation for life without parole, was freed from prison on September 4. Spradley spent 9.5 years incarcerated, including 3.5 years on death row. He was granted a new trial in 2011 as a result of multiple evidentiary errors in his trial. The state's key witness against Spradley, his ex-girlfriend, Alisha Booker, later testified that she had lied at trial because Spradley was cheating on her. "I just felt he was doing me wrong," she said. Booker also testified that when she told law enforcement officials that she had lied, they told her that she faced jail time and having her children taken away from her if she did not stick to her original story. The defense has also alleged that Booker received $10,000 in reward money for her testimony. Spradley agreed to an Alford plea or "best interest" plea, in which a defendant does not admit guilt, but finds it in his best interest to plead guilty. Alabama is one of only three states that allows a judge to override a jury's recommendation for life, and the only state where such a judicial override has been used in 16 years. In more than 90% of the overrides, judges overruled life verdicts to impose a death sentence, mostly against African-American defendants and disproportionately during judicial election years. Upon his release, Spradley said, "It was horrible, horrible to be on death row for a crime I didn't do. I wouldn't wish it on anyone. I can't make up for the years I've missed, but I'm so glad to be alive so I can be there for my children."

Pages