Willie McNair was executed last week after courts refused to review the trial judge’s decision to sentence him to death even though the jury decided he should be sentenced to life imprisonment without parole.
Mr. McNair, who is Black, was first condemned in 1991 for the killing of a white woman, following a trial from which many African American jurors were excluded because of their race.
At trial, Houston County District Attorney Douglas Valeska relied on illegal evidence, inflammatory comments, and name-calling to secure a conviction and death sentence. The sentence was later reversed by an Alabama appeals court.
At the second and final sentencing, the jury returned a verdict of life imprisonment without possibility of parole. The trial judge, without explanation, rejected the jury’s verdict and sentenced Mr. McNair to death.
Judicial override of life verdicts is a highly controversial practice, given that in every other aspect of a criminal case, the jury is the voice of the people. Alabama is the only state in the country that allows elected state court judges virtually unlimited discretion to override jury verdicts of life and impose death.
Here, Willie McNair was executed after the judge substituted his opinion for that of the jurors, who found that death was not the appropriate sentence in this case.
A federal district court agreed that Mr. McNair’s death sentence could not stand. In 2004, the United States District Court for the Middle District of Alabama found that Mr. McNair’s death sentence was unconstitutional because his trial lawyers – who knew what had happened at the first trial – nonetheless failed at the second trial to present crucial information that would have explained the crime and persuaded the judge to follow the jury’s life verdict.
The lawyers claimed that they could not afford to do the work required in Mr. McNair’s case because Alabama law limited them to only $1000 for all out-of-court work.
The federal court pointed to evidence presented by EJI attorneys in a federal hearing which showed that this crime resulted from drug-induced derangement. People who had known Willie McNair his whole life testified that such behavior was highly out of character for him and that he was held in extremely high esteem in his community. Expert witnesses explained that this offense would not have happened but for Mr. McNair’s tragic and severe substance addiction.
The federal court found that Mr. McNair’s lawyers failed to fulfill their constitutional duty to represent him effectively, and vacated his death sentence.
That ruling was reversed by a federal appeals court on procedural grounds. The appeals court did not disagree with the findings about the poor quality of Mr. McNair’s legal representation, but held that the federal trial court should not have allowed additional evidence to be presented in federal court. The appeals court decided that procedural rules prevented Mr. McNair from presenting this evidence, and that without it, his claims failed.
Mr. McNair appealed to the Alabama Supreme Court and the United States Supreme Court, but neither court would review his claims.
In spite of the jury’s decision that life, not death, was the appropriate sentence in this case, and in spite of the federal court’s finding that his death sentence was unconstitutional – and even though he had an exemplary record in prison – the State of Alabama executed Willie McNair by lethal injection on May 14, 2009.