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."

STUDIES: Racial Bias in Jury Selection

A new study of trials in Caddo Parish, Louisiana, revealed that potential jurors who were black were much more likely to be struck from juries than non-blacks. The results were consistent with findings from Alabama, North Carolina, and other parts of Louisiana, highlighting an issue that will be reviewed by the U.S. Supreme Court this fall. In Caddo Parish, an area known for its many death sentences, prosecutors used peremptory strikes against 46% of black jurors, but only 15% of other jurors, according to the study by Reprieve Australia. The racial composition of the juries appeared to make a difference in the ultimate outcome of the cases. The study found that no defendants were acquitted by juries with 2 or fewer black jurors, but 19% were acquitted when 5 or more jurors were black. In an Alabama study, prosecutors used peremptory strikes to remove 82% of eligible black potential jurors from trials in which the death penalty was imposed. A study of death penalty cases in North Carolina found that prosecutors struck 53% of black potential jurors but only 26% of others. (Click image to enlarge.)

Death Row Exoneree Anthony Ray Hinton Shares His Story

In an interview with Salon, Anthony Ray Hinton (pictured, l.), the 152nd death row exoneree, spoke about his wrongful conviction and spending 30 years on Alabama's death row for a crime he did not commit. "They had every intention of executing an innocent man," Hinton said. "If you’re poor and black you don’t stand a chance."  Hinton spoke about the inadequate representation he received at his trial: "My ballistics expert was blind in one eye. He was paid $500. It came down to, 'Who do you believe? The expert with one eye, or the state?' The district attorney cross-examined my expert -- he chewed him up and spit him out."  Hinton described conditions on death row as "a second hell," adding, "[i]t’s not a place I would wish on my worst enemy." Prosecutors in his case continued to push for death, even after national ballistics experts had exposed the invalidity of the forensic testimony they had presented against Hinton. "The DA that we have now seems like he doesn’t give a damn about a man being innocent," Hinton said.  "When you have a death row case, you have to make 100 percent sure you have the right person." 

EDITORIALS: New York Times Sees "Alarming" Link Between Official Misconduct and Death Penalty Mistakes

In an editorial on April 13, the New York Times described the death penalty as "cruel, immoral, and ineffective at reducing crime" and called it "so riddled with error that no civilized nation should tolerate its use."  The Times described how prosecutorial misconduct and an "all-too-common mind-set to win at all costs" played a substantial role in the convictions of many of the 152 innocent men and women who have been exonerated after beingly wrongly sent to death row and had contributed to the execution of at least two death-row inmates who almost certainly were innocent. "Innocent people get convicted for many reasons, including bad lawyering, mistaken identifications and false confessions made under duress," the editorial said. "But as advances in DNA analysis have accelerated the pace of exonerations, it has also become clear that prosecutorial misconduct is at the heart of an alarming number of these cases." The Times noted that "In the past year alone, nine people who had been sentenced to death were released — and in all but one case, prosecutors’ wrongdoing played a key role."  Read full editorial below.

INNOCENCE: Anthony Ray Hinton Exonerated After 30 Years on Alabama's Death Row

Anthony Ray Hinton (pictured, l.) has been exonerated after spending nearly 30 years on Alabama's death row. He will be released on April 3. Hinton was convicted of the 1985 murders of two fast-food restaurant managers based upon the testimony of a state forensic examiner that the bullets in the two murders came from a gun found in Hinton's house. The prosecutor, who had a documented history of racial bias, said he could tell Hinton was guilty and "evil" just by looking at him. Hinton was arrested after a victim in a similar crime identified him in a photo lineup, even though Hinton had been working in a locked warehouse 15 miles away when that crime was committed. Hinton's lawyer did not know the law and mistakenly believed that funding to hire a qualified firearms expert was not available.  Instead, he hired an expert he knew to be inadequate, and as a result failed to present any credible evidence to rebut the state's claim that the bullets were fired from Hinton's gun. In 2002, three top firearms examiners testified that the bullets could not be matched to Hinton's gun, and may not have come from the a single gun at all. Last year, the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously held that Hinton had been provided substandard representation and returned his case to the state courts for further proceedings.  Prosecutors decided not to retry him after the state's new experts said they could not link the bullets to Hinton's gun. Bryan Stevenson (pictured, r.), Hinton's lead attorney, said, “Race, poverty, inadequate legal assistance, and prosecutorial indifference to innocence conspired to create a textbook example of injustice. I can’t think of a case that more urgently dramatizes the need for reform than what has happened to Anthony Ray Hinton.” Hinton is the 152nd person exonerated from death row since 1973, the second in 2015, and the sixth in Alabama.

Growing Number of Pharmaceutical Companies Object to Use of Drugs in Executions

On March 4, Akorn Pharmaceuticals, a manufacturer of two drugs (midazolam and pentobarbital) that have been used in executions, released a statement announcing measures to block the sale of its products to prisons. Akorn joins at least two other U.S.-based drug companies and several European companies in expressing opposition to the use of their products in lethal injections. In 2014, Par Pharmaceuticals responded to Indiana's proposed use of one of their anesthetics by prohibiting the sale of the drug to prisons. Stephen Mock, a spokesman for Par, said, “It’s not because we take public policy positions on issues like capital punishment. We’re a pharmaceutical company, and we have a mission statement. Par’s mission is to help improve the quality of life. Indiana’s proposed use of our product is contrary to our mission.” Akorn's statement announcing their new restrictions said, “The employees of Akorn are committed to furthering human health and wellness. In the interest of promoting these values, Akorn strongly objects to the use of its products to conduct or support capital punishment through lethal injection or other means.”

American Bar Association Calls for Unanimous Juries and Greater Transparency in Execution Process

On February 9, the House of Delegates of the American Bar Association unanimously passed two resolutions calling for unanimous juries in capital sentencing and greater transparency in lethal injection procedures. Resolution 108A stated: "Before a court can impose a sentence of death, a jury must unanimously recommend or vote to impose that sentence," and, "The jury in such cases must also unanimously agree on the existence of any fact that is a prerequisite for eligibility for the death penalty and on the specific aggravating factors that have each been proven beyond a reasonable doubt." Currently, some states, including Florida, Alabama, and Delaware, allow a jury to recommend a death sentence without unanimity. Resolution 108B called for all death penalty jurisdictions "to promulgate execution protocols in an open and transparent manner and require public review and comment prior to final adoption of any execution protocol, and require disclosure to the public by all relevant agencies of all relevant information regarding execution procedures." As lethal injection drug restrictions have caused states to seek out new sources of drugs, many states have adopted secrecy policies surrounding their lethal injection process. 

LAW REVIEWS: Disparities in Determinations of Intellectual Disability

A recent law review article reported wide variations among states in exempting defendants with intellectual disability from the death penalty. Professor John Blume (l.) of Cornell Law School, along with three co-authors, analyzed claims filed under the Supreme Court's decision in Atkins v. Virginia (2002) against executing defendants with intellectual disability (formerly, "mental retardation"). Overall, from 2002 through 2013, only about 7.7% (371) of death row inmates or capital defendants have raised claims of intellectual disability. The total "success" rate for such claims was 55%. In North Carolina, the success rate was 82%, and in Mississippi 57%. However, in Georgia (where Warren Hill was recently executed), the success rate for those claiming this disability was only 11%, and in Florida, the success rate was zero. The authors found that states that significantly deviated from accepted clinical methods for determining intellectual disability, such as Florida, Alabama, Georgia, and Texas, had the lowest success rates. To preserve equal protection under the law, the authors recommended the Supreme Court strike down aberrant practices in isolated states, just as it struck down Florida's strict IQ cutoff.