On June 13, the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals unanimously reversed Tawuan Townes’s conviction and death sentence after the trial judge failed to properly instruct the jury on the element of intent.
In November 2008, two armed men attempted to rob Christopher Woods in Dothan, Alabama, and Woods was shot and killed. Police arrested Tawuan Townes in the middle of the night and began interrogating him at the police station. Tawuan had just turned 18, had no prior experience with the criminal justice system, and had only completed eighth grade.
After police lied to Tawuan, telling him that his co-defendant had implicated him in the crime, and offered to help him if he confessed, Tawuan told police that he had been with Cornelius Benton when Benton kicked in Woods’ front door and admitted he had fired a warning shot. Benton began to beat Woods and Tawuan asked him not to shoot, but Benton shot and killed Woods. Tawuan was charged with capital burglary-murder.
Houston County prosecutors removed all but one African American from his jury and argued at trial that Tawuan’s warning shot killed the victim. The defense argued that Tawuan did not intend to kill Mr. Woods.
Alabama law requires the State to prove that the accused specifically intended to kill the victim in order to convict him of capital murder. But Tawuan’s trial judge instructed the jury that it must presume Tawuan had specific intent. Tawuan was convicted of capital murder and sentenced to death.
On appeal, EJI argued the trial court’s instruction was illegal because it did not require the State to prove Tawuan specifically intended to kill the victim. The Court of Criminal Appeals agreed, finding that the instruction required the jury to presume Tawaun had specific intent, instead of requiring the State to prove intent beyond a reasonable doubt. It was plain error because Tawuan’s “only defense was that he did not intend to kill Woods” and the instruction told the jury it had to find intent, so it “completely eliminate[d] [Tawuan’s] defense.”
The court went on to find that a properly-instructed jury might not have convicted Tawuan of capital murder, because the State’s evidence of specific intent was not overwhelming and the jury could have believed that Tawuan fired with the intent only to scare Woods. Accordingly, it reversed Tawuan’s conviction and death sentence and sent the case back for a new trial.