On Friday, the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals reversed EJI client James Osgood’s death sentence, ruling that the trial court’s jury instructions improperly limited the jury’s consideration of nonstatutory mitigating evidence and inaccurately described the process for weighing the aggravating circumstances and the mitigating circumstances.
Mr. Osgood was convicted of two counts of capital murder in the 2010 death of Tracy Brown in Chilton County. At the penalty phase, his defense offered mitigating evidence to persuade the jury to impose life without parole rather than death. The mitigating evidence included that Mr. Osgood had been sexually abused as a child; that his brain development was potentially hindered by the malnutrition he suffered as an infant; that he was admitted to a psychiatric hospital as a teenager; and that he had attempted suicide.
The law requires that the jury consider all mitigating evidence in deciding whether to impose a death sentence. But Mr. Osgood’s trial judge instructed the jury that the only two mitigating circumstances presented in the case were “substance abuse by the defendant and his family life.”
EJI argued on appeal that the trial court’s instruction improperly restricted the jury’s consideration to only two of the many mitigating factors presented at trial. The Court of Criminal Appeals agreed, finding that the instruction violated the Constitution and Alabama law because it “effectively precluded the jury from considering and weighing the other mitigating circumstances offered” by Mr. Osgood.
EJI also argued that the trial judge made a mistake in explaining the weighing process. The Court of Criminal Appeals agreed that the instructions violated the law requiring consideration of all mitigating evidence because the judge “suggested to the jury that there was at least one scenario in which the jury should not even consider mitigating circumstances in its deliberations.”
The appeals court concluded that the errors required reversal of Mr. Osgood’s death sentence, despite the failure of his lawyer to object to the instructions at trial, because they adversely affected Mr. Osgood’s constitutional rights. First, the court reasoned, the improper language was the only part of the instructions in which the trial court discussed nonstatutory mitigating circumstances and explained the weighing process. “Accordingly, this Court is not convinced that the jury’s recommendation was made with a proper understanding of the mitigating evidence it was to consider and the process by which it was to weigh the aggravating circumstances and the mitigating circumstances.” Second, the instructions rose to the level of plain error because the trial court gave great consideration to the jury’s tainted sentence recommendation.
The Court of Criminal Appeals reversed Mr. Osgood’s death sentence and remanded the case to the trial court for a new penalty-phase hearing.