The Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals yesterday overturned a death sentence imposed on EJI client Lionel Francis and ordered the trial court to resentence him to life imprisonment without parole.
Mr. Francis was sentenced to death in Huntsville, Alabama, last year following the tragic shooting death of his 20-month-old daughter. Testimony at trial showed that he was a caring father and he maintained that the shooting was accidental, but he was convicted of murder made capital because the victim was less than 14 years of age.
In Alabama, a person who is convicted of capital murder is eligible to be sentenced to death only if the jury unanimously finds that prosecutors have proven beyond a reasonable doubt that at least one aggravating circumstance exists.
Madison County prosecutors sought the death penalty against Mr. Francis based on only one aggravating circumstance—they asserted that he was previously convicted of a felony involving the use or threat of violence to the person.
But the only prior conviction Mr. Francis had was for a misdemeanor in North Dakota in 2007. Over objections by defense counsel, prosecutors persuaded the trial judge to instruct the jury that this misdemeanor qualified as a violent felony for the purpose of sentencing Mr. Francis to death.
During deliberations at the penalty phase, the jury asked the court to clarify whether the prior conviction was a felony or a misdemeanor, and the court told the jury a second time that it was a felony. The jury then returned a non-unanimous verdict in favor of a death sentence.
EJI represented Mr. Francis on appeal and argued that his sentence was unconstitutional because the trial judge improperly told the jury that a misdemeanor in North Dakota qualified as a felony that made him eligible for the death penalty.
The Court of Criminal Appeals agreed, holding in a unanimous decision that Alabama law “is not ambiguous” on this point—it “does not include misdemeanor convictions committed in another jurisdiction” even if they would have constituted a felony in Alabama.
It is an “elementary rule” that a person cannot be subjected to a punishment “unless the words of the statute plainly impose it,” the court reasoned, which means that courts cannot expand sentencing statutes.
The criminal code is designed to warn people about what specific conduct violates the law and what the punishment will be for that illegal conduct. Accordingly, the court held that allowing Mr. Francis’s misdemeanor conviction to be considered a felony under Alabama’s death penalty statute “would frustrate the legislature’s stated purpose of providing fair warning.”
Because the State failed to prove any aggravating circumstance beyond a reasonable doubt, the criminal appeals court ruled that he was not eligible to be sentenced to death. The court remanded the case to the trial judge to resentence Mr. Francis to life in prison without parole—the only sentence he is eligible to receive.