The Alabama Supreme Court today vacated Brandon Washington’s death sentence because the State introduced highly improper victim impact evidence at the penalty phase of his trial. EJI had argued that Mr. Washington’s death sentence was illegally obtained and the court agreed, ordering a new penalty trial.
Brandon Washington, then an 18-year-old Miles College freshman with no criminal history, was convicted and sentenced to death in the 2005 shooting of a Radio Shack employee in Jefferson County, Alabama, even though no physical evidence linked him to the crime. At the penalty phase, Mr. Washington presented evidence that his drug-addicted mother had abandoned him to spend his teenage years in foster care, but he nonetheless succeeded in graduating high school and enrolled at Miles College.
The State’s argument for imposing the death penalty depended on a single aggravating circumstance. At the penalty phase, the prosecutor introduced testimony from the victim’s parents, who told the jury that Mr. Washington’s crime was “brutal, evil, terrible,” that he was “someone without a conscience,” and that death was the appropriate punishment. The jury voted to impose the death penalty, and the trial judge sentenced Mr. Washington to death.
EJI explained to the court that it is illegal for family members of the victim to testify about their opinions of the defendant, the crime, or the appropriate punishment. On appeal, the State conceded it was error for the trial court to allow the victim’s parents to testify in this manner, but argued it made no difference in Mr. Washington’s case because the judge did not consider the illegal testimony and the jury and judge would have selected death even without the improper comments.
The Alabama Supreme Court disagreed, observing that the trial court did, in fact, consider the improper testimony and that the sentencing decision was a close call. Reasoning that these kinds of remarks from bereaved family members are designed to “incite an arbitrary response from the jury and that they should have been excluded,” the Alabama Supreme Court concluded that the admission of the victim-impact testimony unfairly prejudiced Mr. Washington and ordered a new penalty phase trial.