The Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals overturned Kevin Towles’s capital murder conviction and death sentence last Friday because the State was allowed to present illegal evidence to the jury and because the jury was improperly instructed about the prosecutor’s burden of proof.
Kevin Towles was charged with capital murder after his five-year-old son died of complications from being struck with force on the buttocks. At trial, Mr. Towles asserted that the child’s mother had caused his injuries. The prosecutor told the jury that the mother had been convicted and sentenced to prison for failing to protect her child from Mr. Towles. Even though evidence of the mother’s conviction and sentence was inadmissible at Mr. Towles’s trial, the trial judge did nothing to prevent the jury from improperly considering that illegal evidence as proof of Mr. Towles’s guilt.
EJI argued that this error unfairly undermined Mr. Towles’s defense, and the Court of Criminal Appeals agreed. The Court of Criminal Appeals observed that the critical question in the case was whether Mr. Towles or his girlfriend caused the child’s injuries. There was no direct evidence regarding when the injuries were inflicted or who inflicted them. The State used the mother’s conviction to show that she did not kill the child, and the trial judge allowed the jury to consider her conviction “to strike at the heart of Towles’s defense.” The appeals court concluded that allowing the jury to consider the mother’s conviction was unfairly prejudicial and required reversal of Mr. Towles’s conviction.
The court also found reversible error on a second issue in the case. In Alabama, a person cannot be convicted of capital murder unless the State proves beyond a reasonable doubt that he had the specific intent to kill the victim. At Mr. Towles’s trial, the State incorrectly informed the jury that they could convict him of capital murder if the State showed only that he knew there was a reasonable likelihood that his actions would cause serious physical injury, and the trial court instructed the jury that “knowledge of the probability of death or great bodily harm is sufficient to constitute murder.” EJI argued on appeal that this instruction illegally reduced the State’s burden of proof and the appeals court agreed, holding that the trial judge’s instruction on intent was plain error.
This is the second time that EJI has won a new trial for Mr. Towles. In 2013, the Court of Criminal Appeals reversed his conviction and sentence because the prosecution was improperly allowed to rely on prejudicial and irrelevant evidence to convict him.