The Alabama Supreme Court on Friday reversed the summary denial of death row inmate Robert Ingram’s postconviction petition because it could not be sure that the trial court’s order – which was written by the prosecutor – actually reflected the court’s independent findings and judgment.
In Alabama postconviction proceedings, it is common for trial judges to simply sign lengthy orders written by the prosecutor, even in death-penalty cases. The practice often leads to significant errors and has been criticized by state and federal courts for creating, at the very least, an appearance of unfairness.
Mr. Ingram’s postconviction judge adopted word-for-word an order written by the prosecutor that summarily dismissed Mr. Ingram’s postconviction petition. The order stated it relied on the judge’s own personal observations from when he presided over Mr. Ingram’s trial, but the judge who signed it did not actually preside at the trial.
The Alabama Supreme Court held that “an error as to whether the judge in fact sat as the trial judge in a capital-murder trial and is basing his decision on personal observations and personal knowledge acquired by doing so is the most material and obvious of errors.”
The court recognized that the practice of signing orders prepared by prosecutors raises serious doubts about whether trial judges are making their own independent findings and conclusions, or just signing onto the prosecutor’s findings without even reading them carefully:
“The very reason that ‘the practice of adopting the state’s proposed findings and conclusions is subject to criticism,’ is because ‘there is an inevitable erosion of the confidence of an appellate court that the findings reflect the considered judgment of the trial court.”
The holding in Mr. Ingram’s case raises questions about fairness and reliability in dozens of death penalty cases in Alabama.