Alabama Supreme Court Orders Relief for Death Row Prisoner Barred from Filing Appeal


The Alabama Supreme Court on May 13, 2011, in the case of death row inmate Andrew Apicella reaffirmed that prisoners have a right to amend initial petitions challenging their convictions and sentences. The court found that it was error for the trial judge to refuse to consider legal claims Mr. Apicella alleged in an amended petition.

Andrew Apicella was sentenced to death by an elected Jefferson County trial judge even though his jury determined that life imprisonment without parole, not death, was the appropriate punishment. Alabama is the only state in the country where elected trial judges have almost unfettered discretion to override a jury verdict of life and impose the death penalty.

In 2002, Mr. Apicella filed a petition challenging the judge’s override of the jury’s life-without-parole verdict, arguing that the judge improperly sentenced him based on the outcome of his co-defendant’s trial. The trial court refused to hold a hearing on the claim, and Mr. Apicella appealed. The Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals reversed and sent the case back to the trial judge for him to hold an evidentiary hearing.

Mr. Apicella then filed an amended petition containing additional evidence in support of his claims, but the trial judge refused to consider it and denied relief.

Mr. Apicella appealed to the Court of Criminal Appeals, which reasoned that Rule 32 permits amendments only before the trial court rules on the petition, and concluded that Mr. Apicella was not entitled to amend — even though the appeals court itself had reversed the trial court’s judgment and sent the case back for further proceedings.

Mr. Apicella appealed to the Alabama Supreme Court and argued that he was entitled to amend his petition when his case was sent back to the trial court.

Last week, the Alabama Supreme Court agreed with Mr. Apicella, reasoning that when the case was reversed and sent back to the trial court, it “restore[d] both the State and the defendant to the condition in which they stood before the judgment was pronounced.” It ordered the lower court to reconsider Mr. Apicella’s amended petition in light of Alabama law providing that such amendments should be freely granted.