On July 30, 2010, the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals reversed Mark Brown’s conviction and death sentence, ruling that the trial judge illegally instructed the jury that it could find Mr. Brown guilty of capital murder even if he did not intend to kill the victims.
Under Alabama law, a person cannot be convicted of capital murder or subjected to the death penalty unless he specifically intends to kill the victim. Mr. Brown participated in a robbery along with two other co-defendants that resulted in the deaths of four people, but there were serious questions raised at trial as to what role Mr. Brown played in the offense in relation to his co-defendants.
At trial, Mr. Brown accepted responsibility for participating in the robbery but he argued that he never intended for the victims to die, that he did not personally kill them, and that he was therefore guilty of a lesser form of murder rather than capital murder. However, the trial judge incorrectly told the jury that it could find Mr. Brown guilty of capital murder even if he did not personally intend to kill the victims, as long as one of his co-defendants possessed the intent to kill.
EJI represented Mr. Brown on appeal and argued that this instruction was a misstatement of Alabama law and that it made Mr. Brown’s trial unfair. The Court of Criminal Appeals agreed, finding that “it is clear that the trial court did not adequately inform the jury that Brown could not be convicted of capital murder unless it determined that he had the specific, particularized intent to kill,” the court wrote. “Rather, the [judge’s] instructions would have allowed the jury to find Brown guilty of the capital offenses, even if he did not have the particularized intent to kill, as long as one of his codefendants had the particularized intent to kill. Therefore, those instructions were erroneous.”
The court also noted that the prosecutor incorrectly argued to the jury that Mr. Brown could be found guilty of capital murder simply because he participated in the robbery that ultimately led to the murders, concluding that “the prosecutor’s statements during closing argument further undermined the reliability of [Mr. Brown’s] convictions.”