Alabama Court Reverses Houston County Death Sentence for the Fourth Time


Today, the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals reversed EJI client Jerry Smith’s death sentence for the fourth time, finding that the sentence sought by Houston County District Attorney Doug Valeska was again unconstitutionally obtained.

Mr. Smith was convicted of capital murder and illegally sentenced to death in 1998. That sentence was reversed by the Alabama Supreme Court because the trial court improperly excluded mitigating evidence from the jury’s consideration.

Mr. Smith was illegally sentenced to death a second time; the Alabama Supreme Court reversed that sentence because potential jurors had unconstitutional contact with members of the victims’ family.

Mr. Smith was illegally sentenced to death again in 2012 after a proceeding where the jury was wrongly told to consider an improper sentencing factor. That error was so clear the Attorney General’s Office agreed the case should be reversed and the Court of Criminal Appeals reversed Mr. Smith’s death sentence.

In a fourth sentencing proceeding, District Attorney Doug Valeska again obtained a death sentence for Mr. Smith. That sentence was reversed today because the Court of Criminal Appeals agreed with EJI’s arguments that the trial judge violated the Sixth Amendment when he barred members of the public from the courtroom during the proceedings.

EJI also argued that Mr. Valeska illegally barred African Americans from serving on the jury for Mr. Smith’s fourth sentencing trial. Mr. Valeska removed every one of the 11 qualified African Americans from the jury. As a result, Mr. Smith, who is Black, was tried by an all-white jury in a county whose population is 25 percent African American. The Court of Criminal Appeals did not address this issue in today’s opinion because it reversed Mr. Smith’s death sentence because his right to a public trial was violated.

On behalf of African Americans who were barred from serving on juries in Houston County, EJI filed a civil rights lawsuit contending that Mr. Valeska has illegally excluded qualified African Americans from serving on juries in serious felony cases, especially capital cases, for decades.

In addition, EJI has argued that Mr. Smith is not eligible for the death penalty because he is intellectually disabled. In 2008, EJI presented evidence that he was placed in special education classes; multiple experts, including one working for the State, have determined that he is intellectually disabled; his I.Q. is 67; and he cannot read or write.