On November 21, the Alabama Board of Pardons and Paroles unanimously voted to posthumously pardon Charles Weems, Andy Wright, and Haywood Patterson, three of the nine "Scottsboro Boys," a group of black teenagers who were charged in 1931 of raping two white women. Eight of the nine defendants, including the three who were recently pardoned, were originally sentenced to death. The racial injustice of the case sparked protests and two U.S. Supreme Court decisions, one because the defendants did not receive adequate counsel and the other because no blacks were allowed to serve as jurors during the trials. The three who were recently exonerated were the last of the group who had not already been pardoned or had charges against them dropped. Legislation passed in Alabama earlier this year allowed the Board to grant posthumous pardons in cases involving racial or social injustice. The pardon and parole board's assistant executive director, Eddie Cook, said, "Today, we were able to undo a black eye that has been held over Alabama for many years." Alabama Gov. Robert J. Bentley said, “The Scottsboro Boys have finally received justice.”
The U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear an appeal from Alabama death row inmate Mario Woodward, who was sentenced to death in 2008 despite a jury's 8-4 recommendation for a life sentence. Alabama is one of only three states that allow a judge to override a jury's sentencing recommendation for life to impose a death sentence; Florida and Delaware also allow the practice, but death sentences by judicial override are very rare in those states. Justice Sonia Sotomayor voted to hear the case, saying the Court should reconsider Alabama's death sentencing procedure. In an opinion joined in part by Justice Stephen Breyer, Sotomayor said 26 of the 27 cases since 2000 in which judges imposed death sentences over a jury's recommendation for life came from Alabama, including some in which the vote for life was unanimous. She speculated that Alabama's elected judges may face political pressures to appear harsh in their use of the death penalty that unelected judges in other states do not face. “What could explain Alabama judges' distinctive proclivity for imposing death sentences in cases where a jury has already rejected that penalty?," she wrote. "The only answer that is supported by empirical evidence is one that, in my view, casts a cloud of illegitimacy over the criminal justice system: Alabama judges, who are elected in partisan proceedings, appear to have succumbed to electoral pressures." She cited instances in which judges used their death sentences as part of their electoral campaigns.
Andrew Lackey is scheduled for execution in Alabama on July 25, despite suffering from mental illness his entire life. Lackey asked for an execution date, even though neither his state nor federal appeals have been completed. Despite extensive evidence of serious mental problems, the trial judge refused to order an expert competency evaluation, failed to inquire about medications he is taking and how they affect his mental state, and did not ask state officials about their diagnosis of Lackey’s mental condition. After a failed suicide attempt, Lackey asked the state to carry out his execution. Attorneys at the Equal Justice Initiative, who had represented Andrew Lackey, recently argued that the judge should not have permitted him to waive his appeals until his mental competency was properly evaluated.
On April 4, the Alabama House of Representatives voted 103-0 in favor of a bill to posthumously pardon the "Scottsboro Boys," nine black teenagers who were wrongfully convicted of the rape of two white women in 1931. The bill passed the Senate by a vote of 29-0, and Gov. Robert Bentley has indicated he will sign it. All but one of the group were sentenced to death by all-white juries with virtually no legal representation. The military had to protect them from angry mobs. They lingered on death row for years. Eventually, after several arguments in the U.S. Supreme Court on the right to counsel and proper selection of juries, all of them were freed without execution. Through the years of appeals, one of the women who accused the group of rape recanted and said the claim was a lie. Sen. Arthur Orr, a Republican sponsor of the bill, said, "Their lives were ruined by the convictions. By doing this, it sends a very positive message nationally and internationally that this is a different state than we were many years ago." The last of the group of defendants died in 1989. (photo: Brown Brothers, Sterling, PA).
Former Manhattan District Attorney Robert M. Morgenthau has joined two other former prosecutors in filing an amicus brief in the U.S. Supreme Court on behalf of William Kuenzel, an Alabama death row inmate sentenced to death in 1988. New evidence emerged in 2010 raising doubts about his guilt. According to Morgenthau's brief, two witnesses who testified against Kuenzel gave entirely different accounts that did not identify him when they first met with authorities. One of the witnesses admitted being involved in the murder. Morgenthau, who retired from the D.A.'s office in 2009 at the age of 90, asked Gil Garcetti, former Los Angeles District Attorney, and E. Michael McCann, former District Attorney of Milwaukee, to join him in asking the Supreme Court to hear the case. The three men each served over 30 years as prosecutor, and oversaw a total of more than 7 million cases. Morgenthau said he always opposed the death penalty and felt he had to act in Kuenzel's case because it reminded him of the Central Park Jogger case, in which he helped reverse the convictions of five teenagers originally convicted of rape and attempted murder. Of the death penalty, which was in place in New York from 1995 to 2007, he said, “[W]e reduced murder by 90 percent and never once sought it.”
Christopher Price is on death row in Alabama for the murder of a church minister in 1991. His current attorneys have asked the courts to enforce the ruling of Gideon v. Wainwright, the landmark 1963 decision guaranteeing the right to counsel for all defendants. According to Price's appeal, his trial attorney failed to provide even a rudimentary defense during a penalty trial that lasted only 30 minutes. The attorney neglected to "investigate his background for potential mitigation evidence," to "speak prior to trial with his family members, friends and schoolteachers," and to "retain a mental health expert despite [the attorney's] previous acknowledgment that a mental health report was essential to presenting a mitigation case." The brief continued, "The only mitigation witness that trial counsel called was Petitioner's mother, Judy Files. Trial counsel had not previously interviewed Mrs. Files, nor had she prepared Mrs. Files to testify. Even more critically, trial counsel was unaware that Mrs. Files had physically and mentally abused Petitioner throughout his life and had allowed several men with whom she had romantic relationships to routinely physically, sexually, and emotionally abuse Petitioner as well." The lower courts have held that even if the attorney's performance was deficient, it was not enough to warrant relief. On March 4, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to review Price's case.
In his recent Sidebar column, Adam Liptak, Supreme Court reporter for the New York Times, discussed the plight that Alabama death row inmate Ronald Smith suffered at the hands of a drug-addicted lawyer and an unsympathetic court. In December, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit ruled that Smith could not challenge his conviction and sentence because his lawyer failed to properly file his post-conviction appeal. However, as Liptak explained, the court did not "place much weight on the fact that the lawyer himself was on probation for public intoxication and addicted to crystal methamphetamine while he was being less than punctilious. In the months that followed, the lawyer would be charged with drug possession, declare bankruptcy and commit suicide." Smith did have a second lawyer, but he was in Tennessee and not authorized to practice in Alabama. Judge Rosemary Barkett (pictured) of the 11th Circuit dissented, saying clients should not be blamed for their lawyers’ mistakes, especially since clients on death row have no role in the selection of their lawyers and have no control over them. “It is unjust and inequitable,” she wrote, “to require death row inmates to suffer the consequences of their attorneys’ negligence.” Last year, the U.S. Supreme Court commented on the quality of Alabama’s death penalty system: “Nearly alone among the states, Alabama does not guarantee representation to indigent capital defendants in post-conviction proceedings. On occasion, some prisoners sentenced to death receive no post-conviction representation at all.” (Maples v. Thomas).
As legislative sessions begin across the country, legislators in several states have proposed bills to abolish or reform the death penalty in 2013. In Alabama, Sen. Hank Sanders will introduce bills to abolish the death penalty, or alternatively to institute a series of reforms. “I believe the death penalty is not only unproductive but counter-productive,” he said. Texas will also consider a number of death penalty reform bills, including restrictions on certain types of evidence, and the creation of an innocence commission. Colorado Sen. Claire Levy is drafting a bill to abolish the death penalty. "We have increasing concerns about the possibility of executing an innocent person," said Levy. Kentucky Rep. Carl Rollins plans to propose a bill to replace the death penalty with a sentence of life without parole. In Maryland, Gov. Martin O'Malley has voiced support for a bill to end the death penalty and direct some of the money saved to murder victims' families. New Hampshire's Gov. Margaret Hassan also supports abolition, and a bill is likely to be introduced in that state. In Oregon, where Gov. John Kitzhaber instituted a moratorium on executions for the remainder of his term, Rep. Mitch Greenlick plans to introduce a bill beginning the process of abolishing the death penalty.