Despite the United States Supreme Court’s ruling last week that a capital sentencing scheme like Alabama’s is unconstitutional, the State of Alabama refused to postpone the execution of Christopher Brooks. He was executed tonight at 6:00 p.m.
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 just last Tuesday, 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 last week 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.