Madison County Circuit Judge Loyd H. Little, Jr., has requested that Alabama Governor Robert Bentley exercise his authority to commute to life imprisonment without parole the death sentence Judge Little imposed on Derrick Mason, explaining that he imposed the wrong sentence at the start of his 15-year judicial career as a result of inexperienced lawyering and his own lack of experience in capital cases.
In a letter to the governor, Judge Little wrote that he took over Derrick Mason's case from his predecessor after he was elected a circuit court judge in 1994. The Mason case was his first of many capital murder trials over which Judge Little presided during his 15 years on the bench. He retired in 2010 but remains on active status, sitting as a circuit judge by special appointment from the Chief Justice.
Judge Little wrote that if he had tried the case later, after he had more experience and exposure to capital cases, he would have imposed life imprisonment without parole instead of death.
Mr. Mason's appointed trial lawyers had absolutely no experience in capital litigation, the judge explained, and did not effectively present mitigating evidence about his age, mental health issues, and lack of significant criminal record. If trial counsel had effectively presented mitigating evidence, the jury's vote and Judge Little's sentencing decision likely would have been different.
Most importantly, Mr. Mason's death sentence was based on the finding that the crime was "especially heinous, atrocious, and cruel" compared to other capital murders. Judge Little told the governor that this aggravating factor should not have been available in Mr. Mason's case because it was not, in fact, "especially heinous, atrocious, and cruel" compared to the other capital cases he tried and observed during his judicial career. Without that aggravating factor, the jury's sentencing verdict likely would have been different, and Judge Little would not have imposed a death sentence.
Concluding that he should have imposed life imprisonment without parole 15 years ago, Judge Little has asked Governor Bentley to do "absolutely the right thing" under Alabama law and the facts of the case, and commute Mr. Mason's death sentence to life imprisonment without parole.
Mr. Mason is scheduled to be executed on September 22, 2011.