Ronald Smith was executed on December 8, 2016, even though his jury rejected the death penalty and decided he should be sentenced to life imprisonment without parole. Alabama is the only state in the country that allows a judge to override the jury and impose a death sentence when the jury returns a verdict for life.
Florida and Delaware previously allowed judge override, but on January 12, the United States Supreme Court struck down Florida's death penalty statute, holding in Hurst v. Florida that a jury, not a judge, must find each fact necessary to impose a death sentence. The Court found that the "jury's mere recommendation is not enough."
In response to Hurst, Florida changed its sentencing law and abolished judicial override, and in August, the Delaware Supreme Court struck down that state's death penalty statute after finding it violates the Sixth Amendment.
That leaves Alabama as an outlier, the only state in the country where an elected trial judge can disregard a jury verdict for life and impose the death penalty. In stark contrast, in nearly every other death penalty state, the death penalty cannot be imposed unless all 12 jurors vote for death.
Ronald Smith was a 23-year-old Army reservist struggling with severe alcohol dependency when he fatally shot Casey Wilson, a convenience store clerk, in Huntsville, Alabama, in 1994. Mr. Smith immediately confessed the crime and expressed remorse, and testified at trial that he had been drinking prior to the crime. After hearing evidence about Mr. Smith's excessive drinking, which began in college and escalated in the weeks before the crime, the jury decided life without parole was the appropriate punishment. Two months later, on October 6, 1995, the elected Madison County trial judge sentenced Mr. Smith to death despite the jury's life verdict.
Alabama does not provide lawyers to poor people on death row to file postconviction appeals, and like most death-sentenced inmates in Alabama, Mr. Smith depended on help from volunteer attorneys. Unbeknownst to Mr. Smith, his volunteer counsel, who suffered from drug and alcohol dependency that ultimately led to his arrest, inability to practice law, and suicide, failed to properly file Mr. Smith's postconviction petition within the one-year limitations period and subsequently abandoned Mr. Smith. As a result, Mr. Smith was denied federal review of his constitutional claims, including the claim challenging the judge's override of the jury's life verdict.
Mr. Smith is the 11th person put to death in Alabama despite a jury verdict rejecting the death penalty and the 30th person executed despite prosecutors' failure to convince all 12 jurors that death was the appropriate sentence.
Christopher Brooks was executed on January 21, 2016, despite the United States Supreme Court's ruling the previous week that a capital sentencing scheme like Alabama's is unconstitutional, because the State of Alabama refused to postpone the execution.
The Supreme Court in Hurst v. Florida held that Florida's capital sentencing scheme is unconstitutional because it does not require the jury to make the ultimate factfindings necessary to impose the death penalty. Because Alabama has the same sentencing scheme as Florida, Mr. Brooks argued that the Court's reasoning applies to Alabama cases like his. Hurst was announced on January 12, yet courts refused to stay Mr. Brooks's execution in order to consider whether Hurst rendered his sentence unconstitutional.
Although the Supreme Court denied Mr. Brooks's motion for a stay, Justice Breyer dissented, writing that the death sentence in this case was unconstitutional because a judge, not a jury, made the ultimate sentencing decision. Justice Sotomayor and Justice Ginsburg wrote a separate opinion raising questions about whether Alabama’s death sentencing scheme is constitutional in light of the Court’s decision striking down Florida’s system.
Mr. Brooks was convicted of capital murder in 1993, when Alabama law capped attorney compensation at $1000 per case. He was just twenty years old at the time of the offense and had no history of violent crime. He also was too poor to hire a lawyer.
He was appointed counsel who did not present the jury with evidence about Mr. Brooks's troubled childhood or his struggles with alcohol, including that he was experiencing alcoholic blackouts and was acutely intoxicated at the time of the crime. More than a half-dozen people would have testified that they knew Mr. Brooks to be a kind and gentle person, but his lawyer never contacted them.
Counsel in a capital case are required to develop this type of evidence, which would have humanized Mr. Brooks and provided the jury with the facts it needed to choose a life-without-parole sentence. But Mr. Brooks was sentenced to death without the jury or sentencing judge hearing this critical mitigating information because his counsel failed to investigate and present it at trial.
Andrew Lackey was a young man on Alabama’s death row who suffered from mental illness his entire life. He was executed on July 25, 2013, even though no state or federal court had completed appellate review in the case to determine whether his trial was fair or his sentence appropriate.
Mr. Lackey was sentenced to death in the tragic killing of Charles Newman in 2005, when Mr. Lackey was 22 years old. Mr. Lackey attempted suicide while on death row, saying that his “mind has started to break down,” and that he was in an “infinite loop where he sees the end as the beginning.” After his failed suicide attempt, Mr. Lackey’s suffering led him to ask the State of Alabama to execute him.
Despite the extensive evidence of serious mental illness, however, the trial judge refused to order an expert competency evaluation of Mr. Lackey, failed to inquire about which psychotropic medications he is taking and how they affect his mental state, and did not even ask state officials what mental illness they had diagnosed Mr. Lackey as suffering from.
EJI appealed, arguing that the judge should have properly evaluated Mr. Lackey's competency before permitting him to waive his appeals, but the Court of Criminal Appeals found that it was acceptable to allow him to be executed. Even though no state or federal court had completed appellate review in the case to determine whether the trial was fair or the sentence appropriate, the State of Alabama moved to set an execution date, and the Alabama Supreme Court scheduled Mr. Lackey's execution for July 25, 2013.
Christopher Johnson was executed on October 20, 2011, despite serious questions about his mental competency, the fairness of his trial, and the lack of meaningful appellate review.
Mr. Johnson was convicted of killing his infant son in 2005. His attorneys attempted to present a defense of not guilty by reason of mental disease or defect, but mid-way through his trial, Mr. Johnson asked the trial judge for permission to represent himself. Despite Mr. Johnson’s history of mental illness, the judge allowed him to represent himself. While doing so, Mr. Johnson asked the jury and judge to sentence him to death.
At his sentencing hearing, the judge found that Mr. Johnson was placed in numerous psychiatric hospitals throughout his childhood and was prescribed anti-psychotic medications. He also exhibited behavior associated with mental illness: while awaiting trial, he refused to bathe, slammed his head against the wall of his cell, and attempted suicide by eating toilet paper. Despite this evidence, the trial judge sentenced Mr. Johnson to death.
Mr. Johnson continued to represent himself after his conviction. The Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals affirmed Mr. Johnson’s death sentence and permitted him to waive the remainder of his appeals. There has been no state or federal postconviction review in the case because the state did not appoint an attorney to represent Mr. Johnson for those proceedings. The Alabama Supreme Court scheduled his execution without ever engaging in meaningful review of his case.
The United States Supreme Court has held that the execution of someone who is not mentally competent is unconstitutional. Yet legal scholars who study the death penalty have found that more than 75% of death row inmates who “volunteer” for execution by waiving their appeals suffer from documented mental illness. In Mr. Johnson’s case, no court has evaluated his competency to be executed.
In addition to questions about his mental competency, the jury in Mr. Johnson’s case never heard about the circumstances of his life. Mr. Johnson was sexually molested by his uncle from age seven to twelve. He was exposed to alcohol at age twelve and drugs at age sixteen. Throughout his childhood, he was placed in programs for children with severe mental and behavioral problems. He did not finish high school and was homeless for part of his adult life. The Supreme Court has held that death sentences imposed without consideration of mitigating circumstances are inherently unreliable.
Derrick Mason was executed on September 22, 2011, even though the sentencing judge who condemned him to die admitted his judgment was a mistake, born of his own inexperience and that of Mr. Mason's trial lawyers.
Madison County Circuit Judge Loyd H. Little, Jr., asked Alabama Governor Robert Bentley to commute to life imprisonment without parole the death sentence Judge Little had imposed on Derrick Mason. In a letter to the governor, Judge Little admitted his own lack of experience led him to impose the wrong sentence in Mr. Mason's case - his first capital trial.
The judge also attributed the erroneous sentence to Mr. Mason's appointed trial lawyers' lack of experience. A brother and sister team who each had less than five years of experience and had never before participated in a trial, Mr. Mason's lawyers failed to present evidence that Mr. Mason was under the influence of drugs known to induce hallucinations and psychosis at the time of the crime. They also failed to present evidence about Mr. Mason's past struggles with drug addiction, mental health problems, and that he was the victim of physical and sexual abuse.
If they had effectively presented mitigating evidence about Derrick Mason's age (19), mental health issues, and lack of significant criminal record, Judge Little wrote, it would have changed the jury's vote and Judge Little's sentence.
Judge Little's letter also shows that the prosecutor's reliance on illegal hearsay evidence to obtain the death penalty in this case should have resulted in a new sentencing hearing for Mr. Mason. In 2010, the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals held that the State violated Mr. Mason's right to confront witnesses against him when it introduced a statement from an unidentified informant that Derrick Mason committed the murder because he was "out of control" and was "trying to make a name for himself."
The Eleventh Circuit did not grant Mr. Mason a new trial becuase it found that the illegal evidence did not impact the decision to sentence Mr. Mason to death. Since that decision, however, Judge Little has conceded that the evidence in the case case does not support the death penalty.
Mr. Mason is black and the victim in this case is white. The Madison County District Attorney's Office, which prosecuted Mr. Mason, has discriminated against African Americans during jury selection in other capital cases. In Mr. Mason's case, lawyers asked the Alabama Supreme Court to stay his execution because the prosecutor engaged in similar conduct at his trial. The court refused to do so this morning.
Governor Bentley denied Judge Little's request to commute Derrick Mason's sentence to life imprisonment without parole.
Eddie Powell was executed on June 16, 2011, despite credible evidence that he was mentally retarded.
Eddie Powell was sentenced to death in 1995. In 2002, the United States Supreme Court ruled in Atkins v. Virginia that it is unconstitutional to execute people with mental retardation. Mr. Powell may be the first person executed in Alabama since Atkins where there is credible evidence of mental retardation but the death row prisoner nonetheless was denied an evidentiary hearing in any court.
Eddie Powell was diagnosed with mental retardation in the fifth grade and placed in special education classes, where he worked hard but could not keep up with other students, and functioned at only a third-grade level in the seventh grade.
Eddie's alcoholic father encouraged him to drink from the time he was a small boy, and Eddie became chemically dependent on alcohol and drugs, which - together with severe head injuries that fractured his skull and left him partially blind - further impaired his cognitive development.
Eddie Powell was not permitted to present in any court detailed evidence from teachers, doctors, neighbors, friends and family, or neuropsychological testing showing his adult IQ is in the range of mental retardation, because an Alabama trial court summarily dismissed his mental retardation claim without hearing any evidence. No state or federal court gave Mr. Powell a hearing on the merits of his claim.
Mr. Powell's lawyers presented these facts to Alabama Governor Robert Bentley, who denied clemency.
That the state and federal courts never afforded Mr. Powell any opportunity to prove that he should be exempt from the death penalty because he is mentally retarded marks a major setback in enforcing constitutional protections for people whose "disabilities in areas of reasoning, judgment, and control of their impulses," mean that "they do not act with the level of moral culpability that characterizes the most serious adult criminal conduct."
Jason Williams was executed on May 19, 2011, using a new drug protocol that Alabama officials hastily substituted and refused to disclose after their supply of lethal-injection drugs was confiscated by the federal Drug Enforcement Agency. Alabama Governor Robert Bentley denied clemency despite the unprecedented lack of transparency and allegations of wrongdoing by state officials and ignored compelling evidence about Mr. Williams's background.
The State of Alabama requested an execution date for Jason Williams after its supply of sodium thiopental, one of three drugs used in lethal injection, expired. It illegally obtained a supply of the drug from Tennessee. EJI filed a complaint with the Department of Justice and the DEA seized the drugs.
Alabama officials then changed the execution drugs and protocol without initially disclosing it to the Alabama Supreme Court, counsel for Mr. Williams, or the public. Most states' execution protocols are readily available to the public in compliance with laws requiring transparency from public officials.
Alabama Governor Robert Bentley refused to intervene despite evidence presenting a compelling picture of Jason Williams's background that neither his jury nor the sentencing judge had seen.
That evidence, presented by EJI in a request for clemency, showed that Mr. Williams was deeply remorseful for this tragic offense, which occurred when he was a 23-year-old with no criminal history who had ingested a large quantity of LSD and crack cocaine.
State experts testified that the crime would not have happened but for the drugs. Mr. Williams's drug dependency started at age 10, when he began using marijuana to cope with brutal beatings by his father that left scars and bruises on his body. His teachers saw the marks but did nothing.
At 12, he was sent to the notorious Bethel Children’s Home in Mississippi, where for nearly a year he was subjected to severe abuse, required to work at hard labor for eight hours a day, and was permitted to sleep only four or five hours a night. He was repeatedly beaten with a switch for so long that his legs went numb. The home was later shut down after investigations revealed rampant criminal child abuse and neglect by its staff.
At 18, Jason Williams learned that his mother was actually his aunt, who took him in after his biological mother left him with a babysitter and never came back for him. Betrayed by everyone he trusted, Jason attempted suicide by shooting himself in the chest and nearly died; the next year, he deliberately overdosed on cocaine. His drug addiction escalated, leading to the crime.
This story of extraordinary abuse and trauma was not told by Mr. Williams's lawyers at trial, so that the jury and judge deciding his sentence did not have a complete picture of the background leading to this offense. Despite learning about the peaceful, hardworking, and respectful man Mr. Williams became in prison, the governor denied clemency, and Jason Williams was put to death.
Glenn Boyd was executed on March 31, 2011, even though his jury decided that the death penalty was not appropriate in his case and that he should be sentenced to life imprisonment without parole. The jury's life verdict was overruled by a judge who at the time of the trial and sentencing was committing crimes and was later shamed into resigning under threat of prosecution.
Mr. Boyd was too poor to hire a lawyer to represent him at trial. His appointed counsel had never been involved in a death penalty case and did not get paid for more than 50 hours of work out-of-court. Mr. Boyd's lawyers did not investigate reasons to spare their client’s life or inquire into his background. As a result, Mr. Boyd's jury heard no evidence about the pervasive abuse, familial violence and alcoholism, and neglect he endured as a child and teenager. A federal judge concluded that Mr. Boyd was entitled to a new sentencing trial due to ineffective assistance of counsel but the Court of Appeals reversed the grant of relief.
Mr. Boyd's jury -- comprised of jurors who were willing and able to impose the death penalty -- nonetheless decided that, despite the gravity of the crime, the death penalty was inappropriate. Calhoun County Judge Harold Quattlebaum then dismissed the jurors as “emotional” and substituted his own judgment for theirs. He overrode the jury's life verdict and condemned Mr. Boyd to death.
At the time, Judge Quattlebaum was engaged in a “consistent and persistent pattern of fraud” which ultimately led him to resign in disgrace. According to the Alabama Judicial Inquiry Commission, Quattlebaum was committing insurance fraud, stealing thousands of dollars from insurance companies to alleviate problems stemming from his own financial mismanagement and gambling expenses. He was facing trial in the Alabama Court of the Judiciary when he resigned quietly in 1990.
Mr. Boyd's petition for a stay of execution was denied by the Alabama Supreme Court and the United States Supreme Court declined to grant a stay. He was the first person to be put to death by the state since Governor Robert Bentley took office. The governor did not grant Mr. Boyd's request for clemency despite the corruption surrounding the judge's override.
Leroy White was executed on January 13, 2011, over strong opposition from the family of the crime victim and in spite of the jury's verdict sentencing him to life imprisonment without parole. The trial prosecutor also joined the call for clemency. Mr. White's case was never reviewed by a federal appellate court because his lawyers abandoned him without filing his appeal.
Leroy White was executed for the 1988 shooting death of his wife, Ruby. Ruby's family members, who were most directly affected by the crime, strongly opposed his execution. Her three children unanimously joined her sister (who was wounded during the crime), other family, and even the prosecutor in asking Alabama Governor Bob Riley to grant clemency and commute Mr. White's death sentence to life imprisonment without parole. The governor denied clemency without explanation.
Before trial, the State offered Mr. White a plea to life imprisonment without parole, but settlement failed because Mr. White’s trial lawyer was wrong about the law and inaccurately told Mr. White that he could not be convicted of capital murder.
After Mr. White was convicted of capital murder, the jury determined that he should be sentenced to life imprisonment without parole. The victim’s family at sentencing also expressed its desire for Mr. White to be sentenced to life imprisonment without parole. The trial court nonetheless overrode the jury's verdict and sentenced Mr. White to death.
Alabama is the only state in the country that allows elected judges to override jury life verdicts without any meaningful restrictions.
After his direct appeal process was complete, Mr. White was represented by volunteer attorneys who filed his habeas corpus petition in federal district court. While the petition was pending, Mr. White's attorneys abandoned him without notice. As a result, he was completely unaware that the court denied his petition in 2009 and did not know that his lawyers had missed the deadline to appeal until July 13, 2010, when he received a copy of the State's motion to set his execution date.
Mr. White immediately contacted the Alabama Supreme Court and called EJI for help. EJI intervened and filed motions in federal and state courts asking the courts to stay his execution and allow him to pursue his appeals. The courts denied the motions, and Mr. White was executed even though no federal appellate court ever reviewed his case.
Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Charles R. Wilson dissented, arguing that Mr. White had provided evidence sufficient to prove he had been abandoned by counsel. Denying Mr. White any opportunity for appellate review is especially troubling because the United States Supreme Court recently decided to review a case that could render Mr. White’s death sentence unconstitutional.
It is unprecedented for the State of Alabama to execute a person where the victim's family unanimously and strongly supported clemency, where both the prosecutor and the jury believed that life without parole was the appropriate sentence, and where the condemned person was abandoned by his volunteer lawyers and never received any review of the constitutional claims in his case by any federal appellate court.
Adding to the difficulty of last night’s execution was the prison’s decision to terminate communication between Mr. White and his lawyers at 4:30 p.m. As a result, Mr. White could not talk to his lawyers about the status of his appeals in the ninety minutes leading up to his 6:00 p.m. scheduled execution. When the execution was delayed by the U.S. Supreme Court minutes before it was to take place, he could not speak with counsel about why, or what to expect, during the hours he sat next to the execution chamber after his execution had been scheduled to occur. Mr. White was executed at 9:00 p.m.
Phillip Hallford was executed on November 4, 2010, despite questions about whether prosecutors violated laws requiring them to disclose to the defense evidence that undermined the reliability of testimony from the State's key witness at trial.
The State's case against Mr. Hallford for the murder of his daughter's boyfriend depended on the testimony of his daughter, who had been charged, as a juvenile, with participating in the crime. Under Alabama law, in order for the State to convict Mr. Hallford of a capital crime and obtain a death sentence, it had to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the murder occurred during a robbery. The daughter provided evidence critical to the State's robbery theory: she was the only witness to testify that Mr. Hallford burned a wallet that belonged to the victim.
Before trial, the daughter and the prosecution agreed that she would testify against her father as part of a plea agreement that allowed her to escape being tried as an adult for intentional murder. Prosecutors, however, did not tell defense counsel about this agreement as they are required to do. The State even elicited testimony at trial suggesting that the daughter did not testify under the promise of any lenient treatment. As a result, the jury never learned that a key witness for the State testified as part of a deal to avoid adult prosecution.
Despite this and other questions about the reliability of the proceedings in Mr. Hallford's case, the state and federal courts allowed Mr. Hallford's execution to be carried out.
Holly Wood was put to death on September 9, 2010. An African-American man with an IQ less than 70, Mr. Wood was too poor to hire a lawyer. The trial court appointed him a lawyer who had just been admitted to the Bar and had no experience in criminal law. The lawyer failed to pursue evidence of Mr. Wood's severe mental impairments even though a competency evaluation revealed that Mr. Wood could not read at better than a third-grade level and had a low IQ. Mr. Wood was convicted and sentenced to death.
After the United States Supreme Court held in 2002 that the Constitution forbids the execution of mentally retarded people, an Alabama appeals court ordered a hearing to determine whether Mr. Wood is mentally retarded.
Evidence at that hearing showed, and the State agreed, that Mr. Wood's IQ falls within the mentally retarded range and that he has has significant limitations in functional academics.
The State wrote an order stating that Mr. Wood nonetheless is not retarded, and the appellate courts upheld that decision.
A federal court, however, reversed Mr. Wood's death sentence because his inexperienced trial lawyer failed to uncover and present evidence of his intellectual impairments at trial. That ruling was reversed by the federal appeals court.
In a decision that focused on the procedural rules that limit federal habeas corpus review and did not reach the merits of Mr. Wood's claim, the United States Supreme Court denied relief.
Mr. Wood's case highlights Alabama's failure to provide adequate representation to defendants facing the death penalty. Alabama is the only state in the country without a state-funded program to provide legal assistance to death row prisoners. There is no state-wide public defender program in the state and over half of the more than 200 people on Alabama’s death row were represented at trial by appointed lawyers whose compensation for out-of-court preparation was capped at $1000.
Jeff Land was executed on August 12, 2010, despite compelling evidence of his transformation into remorseful man who became a peacemaker and, according to prison guards, saved lives by helping to prevent violence and conflicts on death row.
Mr. Land's request that the governor commute his death sentence to a sentence of life imprisonment without parole was supported by a Department of Corrections sergeant and three correctional officers who had worked with him during the nearly 17 years Mr. Land spent on Alabama's death row.
These correctional officers testified by affidavit that, in addition to never getting a single disciplinary infraction and serving as a trustworthy prison hallrunner, Mr. Land "saved lives" by providing information to correctional staff about potential conflicts or violent situations. "As a result of information provided by Mr. Land over these many years," the DOC Sergeant stated, "countless assaults, injuries, and even possible deaths were avoided."
Mr. Land designed and implemented an efficient system for managing the laundry for hundreds of death row and segregation prisoners, and played a critical role in distributing meals to prisoners. He was entrusted to do jobs that others would refuse or manipulate to their advantage.
Although corrections professionals with decades of experience dealing with prisoners, including death row inmates, expressed confidence that Jeff Land became a changed man and had successfully rehabilitated, the governor denied clemency.
Mr. Land asked the Alabama Supreme Court and the United States Supreme Court to stay his execution, but both courts declined to do so.
John Parker was executed on June 10, 2010, for a crime that occurred when he was just 19 years old, despite the fact that a jury comprised of Alabama citizens who support the death penalty decided that life imprisonment without parole was the appropriate punishment in this case.
John Parker was appointed an attorney because he was to poor to hire one. The lawyer appointed to represent him told the court that he did not have enough experience to handle a capital trial, but the trial court did not appoint more qualified counsel to the case.
During jury selection, the prosecutor excluded 89% of qualified African Americans from jury service, which resulted in an almost all-white jury. The prosecutor felt confident in his race-based exclusions because Mr. Parker is white. However, the United State Supreme Court later held that it is illegal to bar a person from jury service because of his or her race, regardless of the the defendant's race. One of Mr. Parker’s co-defendants was granted a new trial based on this Supreme Court decision; Mr. Parker was not.
Although Mr. Parker's jury decided that death was not the appropriate sentence, the elected trial judge overrode the jury's verdict and sentenced Mr. Parker to death. His older and more culpable co-defendant was sentenced to life without parole.
On appeal, the state appeals court required the prosecution to provide race-neutral reasons for excluding 8 of the 9 black potential jurors from Mr. Parker’s jury. The prosecutor claimed he struck one black venireperson for minor traffic offenses; but the prosecutor did not strike a white venireperson who had two prior tickets for driving while intoxicated. Two African Americans were removed because they were trained in psychology; but a white person who had taken psychology classes was allowed to serve on the jury. Even though the State struck black people who shared key characteristics with whites who not struck, the appellate courts refused to grant a new trial.
Subsequent appellate courts upheld Mr. Parker’s conviction despite evidence that his admittedly inexperienced trial attorney failed to investigate and present crucial evidence, such as evidence that Mr. Parker had suffered brain damage. Appointed counsel also did not appeal the trial court's ruling allowing the jury to hear a statement that police obtained from Mr. Parker while he was under the influence of drugs and alcohol.
After an execution date was scheduled and his lawyer abandoned him, EJI provided assistance to challenge Mr. Parker's execution. The Alabama Supreme Court, over the dissent of two justices, refused to stay Mr. Parker’s execution despite changes in Alabama law that require review of the trial court's decision to reject the jury's life verdict.
Mr. Parker’s faulty trial and death sentence is yet another example of the harms of judicial override, which grants elected judges almost unrestrained power to reject the jury's sentencing verdict.
Tommy Whisenhant was executed on May 27, 2010, in spite of improper behavior by the prosecution which biased the jury and substantial evidence of Mr. Whisenhant’s history of mental illness and abuse.
Mr. Whisenhant came from an extremely troubled background. He shared a bedroom with his abusive and controlling mother until he was 16, and his mother often encouraged Tommy to join her in physically abusing his own father. Tommy was regularly beat by his grandmother, and when he was only 12, he was sexually assaulted by two older girls who threatened to castrate him if he refused to have intercourse with them. This long-term abuse took its toll, and according to an expert psychiatrist, Tommy suffered from severe mental disease that destroyed his ability to distinguish right from wrong.
In closing arguments, the prosecutor suggested that Mr. Whisenhant might be released from a mental institution back onto the streets if the jury found him not guilty by reason of insanity. Although the prosecutor was warned this argument would unfairly bias the jury, he repeatedly disregarded the trial court’s orders and violated well-established Alabama law forbidding this argument. These reckless remarks were a glaring error, and led to the reversal of Mr. Whisenhant’s conviction.
At his second trial, the court denied Mr. Whisenhant the $3500 it would have cost to hire expert psychiatrists, and the jury heard nothing about Mr. Whisenhant’s mental illness before he was re-convicted and sentenced to die. At the sentencing hearing, the prosecutor impermissibly biased the jury by suggesting, without any proof, that Mr. Whisenhant had previously committed other crimes. The Alabama Supreme Court found this error tainted the hearing and ordered a new sentencing hearing.
Mr. Whisenhant was again sentenced to die at the new hearing, and after the Alabama Supreme Court refused to hear his appeal, he appealed to the federal court system. Despite the continual misconduct by prosecutors throughout his trials and substantial evidence that Mr. Whisenhant was mentally ill, the Eleventh Circuit upheld Mr. Whisenhant’s death sentence.
Max Payne was executed on October 8, 2009. As a child, he was so severely physically and sexually abused by his stepfather, mother, and sister, that he fled home before his 14th birthday. Despite his history of head injuries and substance abuse, Mr. Payne was not allowed to present expert mental health testimony to assist in his defense. He was sentenced to death by a jury that did not have the opportunity to consider Mr. Payne’s history of abuse or that he was impaired by drugs and alcohol at the time of the crime.
The State presented no eyewitness testimony at trial, and a witness testified that Mr. Payne’s accomplice had confessed to the killing. Although there was evidence that the prosecution deliberately intimidated and interfered with a key defense witness and withheld exculpatory evidence, the state and federal courts denied relief.
Jack Trawick was executed on June 11, 2009. Read EJI's Statement on the Execution of Jack Trawick.
Willie McNair was put to death by the State of Alabama on May 14, 2009, even though his jury decided that life, not death, was the appropriate sentence in his case.
Mr. McNair, who is black, was first condemned in 1991 for the killing of a white woman, following a trial from which many African American jurors were excluded because of their race.
At trial, Houston County District Attorney Douglas Valeska relied on illegal evidence, inflammatory comments, and name-calling to secure a conviction and death sentence. The sentence was later reversed by an Alabama appeals court.
At the second and final sentencing, the jury returned a verdict of life imprisonment without possibility of parole. The trial judge, without explanation, rejected the jury’s verdict and sentenced Mr. McNair to death.
Judicial override of life verdicts is a highly controversial practice, given that in every other aspect of a criminal case, the jury is the voice of the people. Alabama is the only state in the country that allows elected state court judges virtually unlimited discretion to override jury verdicts of life and impose death.
A federal district court agreed that Mr. McNair’s death sentence could not stand. In 2004, the United States District Court for the Northern District of Alabama found that Mr. McNair's death sentence was unconstitutional because his trial lawyers - who knew what had happened at the first trial - nonetheless failed at the second trial to present crucial information that would have explained the crime and persuaded the judge to follow the jury’s life verdict.
The lawyers claimed that they could not afford to do the work required in Mr. McNair’s case because Alabama law limited them to only $1000 for all out-of-court work.
The federal court pointed to evidence presented by EJI attorneys in a federal hearing which showed that this crime resulted from drug-induced derangement. People who had known Willie McNair his whole life testified that such behavior was highly out of character for him and that he was held in extremely high esteem in his community. Expert witnesses explained that this offense would not have happened but for Mr. McNair’s tragic and severe substance addiction.
The federal court found that Mr. McNair's lawyers failed to fulfill their constitutional duty to represent him effectively, and vacated his death sentence.
That ruling was reversed by a federal appeals court on procedural grounds. The appeals court did not disagree with the findings about the poor quality of Mr. McNair’s legal representation, but held that the federal trial court should not have allowed additional evidence to be presented in federal court. The appeals court decided that procedural rules prevented Mr. McNair from presenting this evidence, and that without it, his claims failed.
Mr. McNair appealed to the Alabama Supreme Court and the United States Supreme Court, but neither court would review his claims.
In spite of the jury’s decision that life, not death, was the appropriate sentence in this case, and in spite of the federal court’s finding that his death sentence was unconstitutional – and even though he had an exemplary record in prison – the State of Alabama executed Willie McNair by lethal injection on May 14, 2009.
Jimmy Dill was executed on April 16, 2009, in spite of serious concerns that he did not receive the adequate legal assistance necessary to ensure a reliable conviction and sentence in his case.
Jimmy Dill's case is an extraordinary one because he received such grossly inadequate legal assistance that neither the jury nor the courts had the evidence needed to make a reliable decision about whether Mr. Dill was guilty of capital murder or whether a death sentence was appropriate.
Because he was poor, Mr. Dill had only an appointed lawyer whose pay was limited to $1000 and who did not investigate or present evidence in Mr. Dill's defense. Some 70% of the people on Alabama's death row were represented at trial by lawyers whose compensation was capped at $1000.
Neither the jury nor any court heard evidence about the circumstances under which the shooting victim did not die until nine months after the crime after evidence emerged that his caretaker failed to provide him appropriate treatment, or evidence about Mr. Dill’s horrific experiences with sexual abuse and his lifelong struggles with drug and alcohol addiction.
As a result, these decision-makers could not reliably determine that this case involved the "worst of the worst" offenses so as to require a death sentence - particularly where the State of Alabama had previously decided the death penalty was not appropriate in this case. Prior to trial, the State offered a plea agreement to a parole-eligible life sentence, which Mr. Dill would have accepted but for his lawyer's failure to explain it to him.
Danny Bradley was executed on February 12, 2009, despite the State of Alabama's refusal to permit him to test DNA evidence that could have exonerated him.
Mr. Bradley was tried for rape-murder of his stepdaughter in 1983, before DNA testing became available. The State relied on serological testing, which showed that Mr. Bradley could have been the source of some evidence samples, but was not the source of other samples.
Two other men confessed to killing Mr. Bradley's step-daughter, but their blood was never tested. Police knew about one of these confessions prior to Mr. Bradley's trial but never disclosed the information to the defense -- an error that four Alabama Supreme Court justices found denied Mr. Bradley a fair trial.
Blood samples from two men who tried to pick up the victim in a van on the day she was killed matched some of the evidence samples from the scene and rape kit.
Four state witnesses testified that Mr. Bradley was home eating dinner and watching TV with his stepchildren on the night of his stepdaughter's disappearance. When he discovered her missing, he enlisted neighbors and in-laws to search for her and contacted the police. Mr. Bradley fully cooperated with police and provided blood and other samples for comparison with the evidence. He maintained that DNA testing would prove he was not one of the men who committed the rape-murder.
After initially agreeing to provide the evidence for DNA testing, the State claimed to have lost it. Mr. Bradley filed a federal lawsuit to require the State to produce the evidence for testing; the suit was still pending on appeal in federal court when the State of Alabama executed Mr. Bradley.
Jimmy Callahan was executed on January 15, 2009. His execution, carried out after 27 years spent isolated and condemned to die, punctuated by periods of reprieve, and preceded by his torturous partial execution last year, raises serious questions about Alabma's death penalty scheme.
The State convicted Mr. Callahan based primarily on incriminating statements obtained by law enforcement officers during a two-day interrogation. Mr. Callahan argued that the statements were coerced, but could not call a key witness to the interrogation because that witness was Circuit Judge Samuel Monk, who presided over Mr. Callahan's trial.
The entire sentencing proceeding took less than one hour. Mr. Callahan's lawyer presented no evidence to persuade the jury and judge to sentence Mr. Callahan to life without parole instead of death and actually asked the jurors to have mercy on him rather than on his client: “I hope you don’t think I’m foolish in speaking on behalf of him that he not be sentenced to the electric chair.”
Mr. Callahan was sentenced to death in 1982, but in 1985, the Alabama Supreme Court found that the police improperly had obtained statements from Mr. Callahan and reversed his conviction. His death sentence was vacated and he was removed from death row.
Two years later, in 1987, the State tried again to prosecute Mr. Callahan and he was convicted and sentenced to death a second time. After seventeen years, the federal district court in 2004 granted Mr. Callahan a new trial because of the trial judge’s participation in the interrogation and his lawyer’s ineffectiveness. For over a year, Mr. Callahan was not subject to the death penalty. Then the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the lower court's decision and reinstated Mr. Callahan's death sentence.
Mr. Callahan lived under the threat of execution until September 2007, when the United States Supreme Court's decision to review the constitutionality of lethal injection put executions on hold across the country. The Alabama Supreme Court nonetheless scheduled Mr. Callahan's execution for 6:00 p.m. on January 31, 2008. After Mr. Callahan and his family had said their final good-byes, the United States Supreme Court stayed the execution at 5:00 p.m.
Mr. Callahan's experience exemplifies the problems inherent in capital punishment, including the length of time people spend on death row, and the "on-again, off-again" nature of cases where relief is granted and then taken away. Indeed, the partial execution suffered by Mr. Callahan and his family last year is similar to a fake execution, which is a recognized torture technique.
The State of Alabama executed no one in 2008.
In 2007, Alabama executed three men: Luther Williams, Aaron Jones, and Darrell Grayson. Mr. Williams, who is black, was executed on August 23, 2007, for the murder of a white man. Mr. Grayson, who is black, was executed on July 26, 2007, for the murder of a white woman. Mr. Jones, who is black, was executed on May 3, 2007, for the murder of a white woman.
Luther Williams, who is black, was convicted and sentenced to death in Tuscaloosa County for the robbery-murder of a white man after a trial in which a racially-charged and highly prejudicial statement was admitted in evidence against Mr. Williams. The statement was contained in a file from Mr. Williams’s psychological evaluation that his trial lawyer did not bother to read or review prior to trial. The courts found that this failure, and defense counsel’s failure to present testimony from witnesses who observed first-hand that Mr. Williams had been abandoned as a child by both of his parents, was whipped by his step-father, and was locked out of the house for days at a time and left to survive in the streets, did not amount to ineffective assistance of counsel. The courts also found that evidence from eyewitnesses who saw someone else driving the victim’s truck on the night of the crime and who knew the State’s key witness to be a liar would not have made a difference at Mr. Williams’s trial.
Darrell Grayson and his ten brothers and sisters grew up extremely poor in a violent, chaotic home. When he was accused of capital murder at age 20, he had no money to hire a lawyer or obtain expert assistance for his capital murder trial. His appointed lawyer conceded in closing argument to the jury at the penalty phase that “this is a death by electrocution case.” After he was convicted and sentenced to death, new scientific developments in DNA led Mr. Grayson to file a lawsuit against the State of Alabama seeking access to potentially exculpatory biological evidence that was used against him at trial. Although new DNA testing could have conclusively proven that an identifiable third party unconnected to Mr. Grayson committed the rape that is at the heart of the State’s theory of the crime, the courts denied Mr. Grayson access to the evidence and permitted him to be executed.
Aaron Jones was convicted and sentenced to death for the 1978 killing of Carl and Willene Nelson in rural Blount County, Alabama. His conviction was overturned after Alabama’s death penalty statute was held unconstitutional in 1980 and he was convicted and sentenced to death following a second trial in 1982. At the second trial, he was represented by Jack G. Davis, now deceased, and George M. Boles, whose referral to Mr. Jones using a racist epithet was tolerated by the state courts and Eleventh Circuit on appeal. The Eleventh Circuit held that Boles’s secretary’s testimony that he told her “that nig*** is going to fry” was not sufficient evidence “to support Jones’s allegation that Boles’s alleged racist attitude toward him affected Boles’s representation to the extent that Jones was denied the right to counsel guaranteed by the Sixth Amendment.” Jones v. Campbell, 436 F.3d 1285, 1304-05 (11 Cir. 2006). Boles began working on Jones’s case only a few days before trial. He and Mr. Davis failed to present evidence that the victims were already dead before Mr. Jones inflicted any wounds and, at the sentencing phase, presented only Mr. Jones’s testimony in his own behalf about a prior conviction. No evidence of Mr. Jones’s mental illness or testimony from his family and friends was presented to persuade the jury that Mr. Jones should not be sentenced to death.