Bills to shorten Alabama’s death penalty appeals process speeding toward committee votes

House and Senate committees are set to vote Wednesday afternoon on proposals to shorten the appeals process for people convicted of capital murder in Alabama. Members of both chambers’ Judiciary Committees gathered Tuesday to hear public testimony on the legislation – HB 216, sponsored by Rep. Lynn Greer, R-Rogersville, and SB 194, sponsored by Sen. Bill Holtzclaw, R-Madison – as well as other bills related to the criminal justice system.

Legislators heard from five speakers at the public hearing, which took place before a standing-room-only crowd. Many other speakers were hoping to be heard, but the committee adjourned after an hour because the House was going into session. Two speakers opposed HB 216 and SB 194, while three spoke in support. Two of the bills’ three proponents were family members of murder victims.

Before the public hearing began, the committees heard from Beau Brown, an attorney with the Alabama Office of Prosecution Services, which helped to draft the bills. Brown briefly explained each of the bills:

  • HB 216 and SB 194 would cause direct and collateral death penalty appeals to run concurrently, thus shortening the appeals process in capital cases. The legislation, labeled the “Fair Justice Act,” would accelerate the pace of post-conviction appeals known as Rule 32 appeals. Those appeals, which examine claims such as ineffective assistance of counsel, now occur after direct appeals that consider issues such as sufficiency of evidence. The bills also would require the state to provide lawyers for both sets of appeals if a defendant is too poor to afford a lawyer.
  • HB 217 would forbid a defendant’s attorney from contacting victims or their families without first giving the prosecutor a chance to ask the judge to forbid that contact. The bill would apply to all criminal cases, though Brown indicated he would be open to an amendment limiting the provisions to capital cases.
  • HB 218 and SB 193 would add additional types of murders to the list of those defined as capital offenses.
  • HB 219 would forbid contacting jurors in criminal cases without permission from the court. Gathering information from jurors is a technique that many defense attorneys use in determining whether there was any sort of improper behavior during trials. As with HB 217, Brown indicated he would be open to an amendment limiting those provisions to capital cases.

Greer sponsors the House bills, while Holtzclaw sponsors the Senate ones. Holtzclaw said he plans to introduce Senate bills that mirror the provisions of HB 217 and HB 219. The package of bills has the support of the Alabama District Attorneys Association.

‘You can’t imagine what you go through’

Walker County District Attorney Bill Adair was dismissive of the idea that the proposals could lead to additional costs for the state. “Those costs all exist now,” he said. Adair told a lengthy and graphic story about a 1988 murder in Cordova. Greg Hunt, convicted of the crime, has been on death row since 1990. Adair described that situation as an unconscionable delay in justice.

Denise Gurganus, the sister of the victim in Hunt’s case, said she had insight on criminal justice policy that most people cannot share. “Until you have lost a loved one to a murder, you can’t imagine what you go through on a daily basis, and it does not stop,” she said.

Sherrie Carter, whose brother-in-law was killed in 1996, was emotional in comparing the amount of time it took to commit the crime to the amount of time the person convicted of killing him has spent on death row. Carter described the state’s lengthy capital appeals process as “just so the defendant can grasp at a thread to get out of what he did.”

‘The cost of this bill will be huge’

Birmingham criminal defense attorney Richard Jaffe said HB 216 and SB 194 could place a tremendous strain on Alabama’s budget and could carry severe unintended consequences.

“You know, 45 percent of our reversals in death cases come because of inadequate assistance of counsel at the trial level, and that’s because of inadequate funding,” Jaffe said. “You get a few thousand dollars to do something that costs hundreds of thousands of dollars, and we’ve already got a shortage of trained attorneys. The cost of this bill will be huge and end up hurting crime victims in the long run because of the reversals of all of these cases.”

Criminal defense attorney Bill Clark, a former president of the Alabama State Bar, focused on the lack of research that had gone into the bills’ potential effects. Clark asked why the bills have not been evaluated by the Alabama Law Institute or the State Bar.

“We have criminal procedure committees that are designed to examine just this sort of thing,” Clark said. “I don’t understand the rush to pass a bill that is difficult to understand. The Bill of Rights was passed to protect citizens from the power of government, and these bills don’t do that.”

Lawmakers will return Wednesday for the fifth meeting day of the 2014 regular session, which is expected to last until early April.

By Stephen Stetson, policy analyst. Posted Jan. 21, 2014.