The State of Alabama executed Jimmy Callahan today, after the Alabama Supreme Court and United States Supreme Court refused to review his claim that his conviction was tainted because his trial judge participated in his interrogation. Jimmy Callahan spent 27 years on Alabama’s death row. During that time, he repeatedly was given reason to believe that his life would be spared, only to have his death sentence reinstated.
Mr. Callahan was sentenced to death in 1982, but in 1985, the Alabama Supreme Court reversed his conviction because the police improperly had obtained statements from Mr. Callahan that were used against him at trial. As a result of the court’s decision, his death sentence was vacated and he was removed from death row.
Two years later, in 1987, the State tried again to prosecute Mr. Callahan and he was convicted and sentenced to death a second time. He spent the next seventeen years in conditions characterized by severe isolation, locked in a single-person cell for 23 hours each day, and under the threat of death.
Then, in 2004, a federal district court ruled that Mr. Callahan did not receive a fair trial because the judge who presided over his trial had participated in the interrogation of Mr. Callahan. Once again, Mr. Callahan’s conviction and death sentence were vacated, and once again, he was removed from death row.
Mr. Callahan and his family experienced profound relief upon learning that the federal court, after so many years, had recognized that his constitutional rights were violated, and that, most importantly, the court’s ruling removed the threat of execution.
For over a year, Mr. Callahan was not subject to the death penalty. Then the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the lower court’s decision and reinstated Mr. Callahan’s death sentence. Death by execution again loomed over Mr. Callahan’s daily existence, until a ruling by the nation’s highest court created hope that no execution would be carried out.
In September 2007, the United States Supreme Court decided to review whether execution by lethal injection violated the constitution. Across the country, executions were put on hold to await the Court’s decision.
The Alabama Supreme Court nonetheless scheduled Mr. Callahan’s execution for January 31, 2008. Thus, after Mr. Callahan was put on death row, then removed, then put back on death row, then removed, then put back again, the Alabama Supreme Court set his execution date despite clear signals from the United States Supreme Court that executions would be postponed.
That execution date was stayed by a federal district court on December 14, 2007, to wait for the United States Supreme Court’s decision on lethal injection. Although the State of Alabama quickly appealed, the Eleventh Circuit refused to act until January 29, 2008, when it vacated the stay. Mr. Callahan suddenly and unexpectedly found himself less than 48 hours away from execution.
EJI attorneys representing Mr. Callahan immediately requested a stay from the United States Supreme Court. At 5:00 p.m. on January 31, 2008 – just one hour before Mr. Callahan’s scheduled execution, and after Mr. Callahan and his family had said their final good-byes – the Court issued a stay.
This “partial execution” devastated Mr. Callahan and his family, who had been told by a federal court that he would not be executed, only to have another federal court announce he would be put to death in less than two days. They suffered the agonizing anticipation leading up to the execution and already had begun to grieve when the United States Supreme Court called off the execution, literally at the last moment.
Death penalty opponents have argued that the length of time people spend on death row, and the “on-again, off-again” nature of cases where relief is granted and then taken away, is a form of torture. Indeed, the partial execution suffered by Mr. Callahan and his family last year is similar to a fake execution, which is a recognized torture technique.
Victims’ families likewise suffer from the length of time and the uncertainty that is an unintentional, unavoidable by-product of a legal system designed to ensure due process in cases where the ultimate penalty is imposed.
Jimmy Callahan’s 27 years on death row exemplify this problem. His execution, carried out after a lengthy period spent isolated and condemned to die, punctuated by periods of reprieve, and preceded by his torturous partial execution last year, calls into question the constitutionality of Alabama’s death penalty system.