After more than nine years in prison, including over three years on death row, for a murder he did not commit, Montez Spradley was released from the Alabama prison system last week.
No physical evidence tied Mr. Spradley to the 2004 murder of a 58-year-old white woman in Birmingham. The prosecution relied on the inconsistent testimony of his ex-girlfriend and a jailhouse snitch to obtain a capital murder conviction. His jury voted to impose a life sentence, but the trial judge overrode the jury’s verdict and sentenced him to death.
In 2011, the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals recognized that Mr. Spradley’s first trial had been a “miscarriage of justice.”
After that decision, Mr. Spradley’s lawyers at the ACLU Capital Punishment Project found evidence that his ex-girlfriend was paid $10,000 for her testimony that Mr. Spradley had confessed to her. They learned that, before trial, she told the police that the confession had never happened, but they used the $10,000 payment and the threat that they would take away her children and prosecute her for perjury to force her to testify.
The police and prosecutors did not disclose the payment to the defense, and neither did the trial judge, who approved a payment to the witness before sentencing Mr. Spradley to death. The lead detective who authorized the payment lied on the stand about the ex-girlfriend’s statement to him, and was later honored with an award from a victims’ rights group for his role in this case.
Mr. Spradley has consistently maintained his innocence. To obtain his release after the Court of Criminal Appeals granted a new trial, he pled guilty without admitting he actually was guilty of the charged crimes.
“[I]t’s pure hell on death row,” Mr. Spradley told the Marshall Project earlier this week. “It’s no place any man wants to be. You have to be very strong to go through something like that. If you are not strong you lose faith and hope. It will kind of kill your spirit. No one to talk to, just dealing with your inner self. Just having that over in your head, thinking that if you don’t get any relief on appeal you are going to die.”
Mr. Spradley’s case is another example of how the administration of the death penalty is unfair, arbitrary, and unreliable. Remarkably, he is the third person released this year whom the State of Alabama had condemned to die. William Ziegler was released on April 16 after his conviction was overturned due to the failure of prosecutors to disclose exculpatory evidence, and Anthony Ray Hinton walked free on April 3 after 30 years on death row for a crime he did not commit.