Today, the State of Alabama executed Michael Brandon Samra, who was 19 at the time of the crime, despite evidence of an unfair trial and unreliable conviction and sentence.
Brandon Samra was a teenager with significant cognitive impairments but no significant criminal history when he was arrested and charged with participating in a high-profile capital murder involving four victims in Shelby County.
Too poor to hire a lawyer, Brandon was represented by court-appointed counsel whose compensation was capped at $1000 for out-of-court work. Trial counsel failed to move Brandon’s trial out of Shelby County, where nearly everyone had heard about the case and many potential jurors had already decided that Brandon was guilty.
Starting in early childhood, family members observed that Brandon was developmentally slow and suffered tremors in his hands, and was in special education most of his life before dropping out of high school. Mental health experts found prior to trial that Brandon had a low IQ and recommended neurological testing after finding evidence of brain dysfunction.
But the appointed lawyers did not hire or consult with an expert in intellectual disability or obtain the recommended brain scans.
Instead of investigating evidence of brain dysfunction, trial counsel repeatedly told the jury that Brandon was a follower of Satan and his involvement in the crime was related to his membership in a Satan-worshipping gang—allegations so baseless and prejudicial that even the prosecutor recognized they could not be used against Brandon at trial.
The penalty phase started a half hour after the jury returned a guilty verdict and ended in a death sentence recommendation that same day.
After the Supreme Court barred the death penalty for people under 18 years old at the time of the offense, new lawyers for Mr. Samra argued that his death sentence is not only unreliable but also arbitrary because his more culpable co-defendant was under 18 and is shielded from execution. Had Mr. Samra been a year younger, his execution would also be barred by the Eighth Amendment.
Earlier this week, the Supreme Court denied two petitions filed by Mr. Samra’s counsel asking it to apply to his case the reasoning of Roper v. Simmons, the 2005 decision holding that the death penalty is unconstitutional for juveniles under 18.
Alabama carried out two executions in 2018 and executed Domineque Ray on February 7, making Brandon Samra the second person to be executed in the state this year.