The State of Alabama put Robert Melson to death tonight even though no federal court had considered his constitutional claims.
Robert Melson, 46, was convicted and sentenced to death in the 1994 killing of three employees during a robbery of a Popeye's restaurant in Gadsden, Alabama, by two men, one black and one Hispanic, wearing bandannas over their faces. A fourth employee survived and identified the Hispanic assailant as Cuhuatemoc Peraita, a former employee of the restaurant; he did not identify Mr. Melson, who is black, as the other perpetrator. When police pulled over Peraita's car and arrested him more than an hour after the crime occurred, they also arrested Mr. Melson, who was a passenger in the car.
At trial, the State presented a statement from Mr. Peraita that he and Mr. Melson had committed the crime, which Peraita later recanted, and testimony that imprints from Mr. Melson's shoes matched a footprint found in a ditch five days after the crime. The National Academies of Science has found shoeprint evidence to be unreliable, unscientific, and susceptible to bias. No other forensic evidence connected Mr. Melson to the crime.
Extensive media publicity surrounded the case, and prosecutors not only failed to disclose information that would have helped the defense case (including the surviving employee's description of the black assailant that differed from Mr. Melson's description) but also engaged in improper argument during the trial (including using hearsay to suggest that Mr. Melson asked his girlfriend to give him an alibi). The district attorney told the jury Mr. Melson was an "animal" and that God's law required them to impose the death penalty.
Because Alabama is the only state in the country with a significant death row population that refuses to provide counsel for condemned prisoners, Mr. Melson had to rely on a volunteer lawyer from out-of-state for his postconviction appeals. That lawyer did not properly sign a pleading and filed a notice of appeal in the wrong court, and as a result, Mr. Melson was denied all federal review of his constitutional claims. In 2010, the Alabama Supreme Court stayed Mr. Melson's scheduled execution because his appeal was still pending at the United States Supreme Court, which ultimately remanded his case and ordered that he be given a chance to prove that gross negligence and misconduct by his attorney entitled him to federal review. Even though his lawyer testified that she failed to properly file his state petition and did not tell Mr. Melson when the petition was dismissed, the federal courts nevertheless found he could not obtain federal review.
A new law passed by Alabama's legislature this spring will exacerbate these problems by making it more difficult to obtain adequate counsel and by imposing more unfair filing requirements. By making the state postconviction process even more complicated and arbitrary, the law increases the likelihood that clients on death row will not receive full and fair review of their cases.
Last week, the United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit stayed the execution to address Mr. Melson's challenge to Alabama's execution method. On Monday, the attorney general appealed to the Supreme Court, and that court vacated the stay on Tuesday, over the dissents of Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer, and Sonia Sotomayor. Additional filings made in state and federal court yesterday were denied today.