The State of Alabama executed Derrick Mason today even though the sentencing judge who condemned him to die admitted his judgment was a mistake, born of his own inexperience and that of Mr. Mason’s trial lawyers.
Madison County Circuit Judge Loyd H. Little, Jr., asked Alabama Governor Robert Bentley to commute to life imprisonment without parole the death sentence Judge Little had imposed on Derrick Mason. In a letter to the governor, Judge Little admitted his own lack of experience led him to impose the wrong sentence in Mr. Mason’s case – his first capital trial.
The judge also attributed the erroneous sentence to Mr. Mason’s appointed trial lawyers’ lack of experience. A brother and sister team who each had less than five years of experience and had never before participated in a trial, Mr. Mason’s lawyers failed to present evidence that Mr. Mason was under the influence of drugs known to induce hallucinations and psychosis at the time of the crime. They also failed to present evidence about Mr. Mason’s past struggles with drug addiction, mental health problems, and that he was the victim of physical and sexual abuse.
If they had effectively presented mitigating evidence about Derrick Mason’s age (19), mental health issues, and lack of significant criminal record, Judge Little wrote, it would have changed the jury’s vote and Judge Little’s sentence.
Judge Little’s letter also shows that the prosecutor’s reliance on illegal hearsay evidence to obtain the death penalty in this case should have resulted in a new sentencing hearing for Mr. Mason. In 2010, the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals held that the State violated Mr. Mason’s right to confront witnesses against him when it introduced a statement from an unidentified informant that Derrick Mason committed the murder because he was “out of control” and was “trying to make a name for himself.”
The Eleventh Circuit did not grant Mr. Mason a new trial becuase it found that the illegal evidence did not impact the decision to sentence Mr. Mason to death. Since that decision, however, Judge Little has conceded that the evidence in the case case does not support the death penalty.
Mr. Mason is Black and the victim in this case is white. The Madison County District Attorney’s Office, which prosecuted Mr. Mason, has discriminated against African Americans during jury selection in other capital cases. In Mr. Mason’s case, lawyers asked the Alabama Supreme Court to stay his execution because the prosecutor engaged in similar conduct at his trial. The court refused to do so this morning.
Governor Bentley denied Judge Little’s request to commute Derrick Mason’s sentence to life imprisonment without parole yesterday. He is the fifth person put to death by the State of Alabama this year.
Alabama is the only state in the country without a state-funded program to provide legal assistance to death row prisoners and has the nation’s highest per capita death sentencing and execution rates.