EJI Wins New Trial for Alabama Death Row Prisoner David Riley


On December 18, 2009, the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals reversed David Riley’s capital murder conviction and remanded his case for a new trial because the trial court allowed his jury to consider highly prejudicial evidence in an illegal manner.

At trial, the jury heard evidence that Mr. Riley had been sent to boot camp when he was juvenile and that he had prior criminal convictions.

EJI argued at the Court of Criminal Appeals, and the court agreed, that because the trial court did not tell the jury how it was allowed to consider the evidence it heard, David Riley’s conviction cannot stand. The court wrote that the trial court’s error meant that “the jury could have improperly found that Riley intended to kill the victim because he had demonstrated a prior criminal tendency.”

The Court of Criminal Appeals found that the prosecutor made the mistake worse by arguing to the jury that the State had tried to rehabilitate Mr. Riley as a juvenile but it “didn’t work.” That argument, said the appeals court, implied “that Riley was a bad person and that he had intended to commit this offense because he was a bad person.” That, the court held, “is precisely what [Alabama law] forbids.”

The appeals court relied on established precedent from the Alabama Supreme Court to rule that the trial court’s plain error violated Mr. Riley’s fundamental right to a fair trial and requires a new trial.