Alabama Death Row Prisoner Wins New Trial


The Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals on Friday unanimously reversed Kenneth McKinnis’s conviction and death sentence after finding that the jury was given improper instructions at trial.

In the early morning hours of August 19, 2006, an individual fired shots in front of the Champagne Lounge, a nightclub in Dothan, Alabama. The shooter then entered the club, firing additional shots. Once inside, the shooter unsuccessfully tried to access the lounge’s cash register, and again fired more shots.

Byron Belser was the only person physically harmed during the robbery. A bullet ricocheted and hit Mr. Belser in the thigh. He was taken to the hospital, where he ultimately died from his injury.

Michael Conaway, the club’s owner, was in front of the club when the incident began. He viewed the shooter – who was wearing a mask over his face – across the street from about 15 to 25 yards away. When the shooter opened fire, Conaway ran for cover. Police officers took Conaway from the scene of the crime to a nearby location, where he saw Mr. McKinnis in handcuffs and said he was the shooter.

A Houston County grand jury indicted Mr. McKinnis for killing Mr. Belser during a robbery of Mr. Conaway. At trial, however, the judge repeatedly told the jury that it could convict Mr. McKinnis of capital murder if it found that Mr. Belser was killed during a robbery of either Mr. Conaway or Mr. Belser.

Because grand jury did not indict Mr. McKinnis for the robbery of Mr. Belser, Mr. McKinnis received no notice that he was expected to defend against that charge. The jury was permitted to convict him of a crime for which he was never indicted.

Because it “destroyed the defendant’s substantial right to be tried only on charges presented in an indictment returned by a grand jury,” the Court of Criminal Appeals found that this instruction was plain error. It reversed Mr. McKinnis’s conviction and sentence and sent the case back for a new trial.