Federal Appeals Court Orders Further Review of Disabled Alabama Death Row Prisoner’s Sentence


The United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit last week granted a hearing to Alabama death row inmate Alonzo Burgess, finding that Mr. Burgess was entitled to an opportunity to present evidence showing that he cannot be executed because he is intellectually disabled.

Mr. Burgess was convicted in 1994 for the murders of his girlfriend and two of her children. The jury sentenced him to life imprisonment without parole, but the elected trial judge overrode the jury’s verdict and sentenced him to death.

At trial, a defense expert testified that IQ testing conducted by someone else had revealed Mr. Burgess was intellectually disabled. He repeated the first grade, usually received failing grades, and eventually was placed in special education classes where he still received failing grades. In ninth grade he received all F’s but for a lone D. On standardized tests, he scored as low as in the lowest 3% or 4% nationally. An expert for the State had estimated that Mr. Burgess may be “mildly [intellectually disabled],” which would be consistent with his “very limited educational and/or vocational achievements.”

In state postconviction proceedings, attorneys challenged his trial counsel’s failure to investigate and present additional evidence showing that Mr. Burgess is intellectually disabled, but the Alabama judge denied their requests for expert assistance and refused to allow any expert to evaluate Mr. Burgess in prison.

Shortly after the trial court denied relief, the United States Supreme Court ruled inAtkins v. Virginia that it is unconstitutional to impose the death penalty on people with intellectual disability. On appeal, despite the Supreme Court’s ruling, the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals did not allow Mr. Burgess to develop evidence about his intellectual impairments. The federal district court held that decision was not unreasonable.

Mr. Burgess challenged these state court rulings in federal court and last week the Eleventh Circuit reversed, finding that the state court’s decision is unreasonable because it was based on “erroneous factual findings directly contradicted by the record.” Because Mr. Burgess tried to get an expert in state court but was denied not only expert funds but also access for any expert to examine Mr. Burgess in prison, the court found he is entitled to a hearing in federal court where he can present the expert evidence denied him in state court. Together with the evidence from trial, expert evidence proffered in federal court, if found to be credible at a hearing, would entitle Mr. Burgess to relief from his death sentence.