Plan to shorten appeals process in Alabama death penalty cases clears House, Senate committees

The Alabama House and Senate soon could vote on a plan to shorten the appeals process for people convicted of capital murder in the state. Judiciary Committee members in both the House and Senate approved the legislation Wednesday.

The House panel voted 9-6 for HB 216, sponsored by Rep. Lynn Greer, R-Rogersville. Earlier, the Senate committee voted 7-1 for SB 194, sponsored by Sen. Bill Holtzclaw, R-Madison. The bills are identical.

Direct and collateral appeals would run concurrently in death penalty cases in Alabama under HB 216 and SB 194, labeled the “Fair Justice Act,” thus shortening the appeals process in capital cases. The bills also would require the state to provide lawyers for both sets of appeals if defendants are too poor to pay for their own representation.

The plan would accelerate the pace of post-conviction appeals known as Rule 32 appeals. Those collateral appeals, which examine claims such as ineffective assistance of counsel, now occur after the completion of direct appeals that consider issues such as sufficiency of evidence. Under the plan, defendants would have to file Rule 32 petitions within 180 days of filing their first direct appeal.

‘We ought to be able to do better’

HB 216 and SB 194 prompted intense debate among lawmakers Wednesday over whether a faster appeals timetable could increase the chances that an innocent person might be put to death. Supporters of the bills said they would protect defendants’ rights while reducing long delays in carrying out executions.

“We’re looking at the average appeal process is 16 years and climbing,” Holtzclaw said. “We can’t lose sight of the fact that these people were convicted by a jury of their peers.”

Recent advances in DNA testing and other technology have reduced the likelihood that a person will wrongly end up on death row, Madison County District Attorney Rob Broussard told House committee members. Of the roughly 1,500 people sentenced to death nationwide since 2000, Broussard said, only four have been exonerated. “The notion that there are a lot of innocent people on death row, I take exception to that,” he said.

Broussard said appeals are still being heard in some Alabama capital cases that were prosecuted more than 15 years ago. He said that lengthy process is unfair to victims’ families, who sometimes have to wait decades before the person convicted of murdering their loved one is executed. “The system we have in place is being abused,” Broussard said. “We ought to be able to do better.”

‘Sometimes we do get it wrong’

Rep. Chris England, D-Tuscaloosa, was highly critical of the proposal, saying it would reduce the amount of time that a defendant’s lawyers have to unearth potential errors. “Sometimes we do get it wrong,” England said. “And sometimes this time has saved people.”

Rep. Mike Jones, R-Andalusia, was among several lawmakers who urged members to take more time to study HB 216. Jones said he supports the death penalty but would like to know more about how average appeal times now would compare to those under the proposed system. “My concern is whether we’re moving too fast,” Jones said. “This is not a simple thing to read through and piece together.”

Sen. Vivian Figures, D-Mobile, said the issue was simple for her, because she opposes the death penalty entirely. “Thou shalt not kill, and two wrongs don’t make a right,” Figures said. Figures was the only Senate committee member to vote against SB 194 on Wednesday.

Alabama lawmakers should be careful to ensure fairness for low-income and marginalized people as they consider reforms of the death penalty system, Bishop David Foley told House committee members. Foley, bishop emeritus of the Birmingham Diocese of the Roman Catholic Church, said innocent people are not the only ones who need extra time. People who are guilty of murder also need time to seek forgiveness and reconciliation, he said.

“In God’s eyes, life is sacred, not just for the innocent but for the guilty,” Foley said. “Only the cross of forgiveness and the final justice of God will truly bring the scales into balance.”

Two other death penalty bills approved; one delayed

Lawmakers signed off Wednesday on two other proposals related to the death penalty. Both House and Senate committees backed bills – HB 218, sponsored by Greer, and SB 193, sponsored by Holtzclaw – to add to the list of offenses defined as capital crimes. For example, the legislation would allow the state to seek the death penalty for any murder committed in a day care or on a school campus.

The House panel also voted 10-5 to approve a bill – HB 219, sponsored by Greer – that would require an attorney or a party in a death penalty case, or anyone acting on their behalf, to obtain a judge’s permission before contacting jurors after the case. Gathering information from jurors is a technique that many defense attorneys use in determining whether there was any improper behavior during trials.

Jones said judges already instruct jurors that they are not required to talk to attorneys after the case. Jones acknowledged concerns that some people might harass jurors or misrepresent themselves, but he suggested an amendment to the state’s jury tampering law would be a better way to address the matter.

The House committee delayed a vote on a bill that would prohibit capital defense attorneys from contacting a victim’s immediate family members before notifying the prosecutor. HB 217, sponsored by Greer, would allow the prosecutor either to agree to the request or ask the court to forbid the contact.

Committee members raised several concerns about the proposal. England said the bill could create appellate issues by limiting access to material witnesses and giving the prosecutor “an inherent advantage over the defense.” Rep. David Standridge, R-Hayden, said the measure needs a clearer definition of “immediate family member.” The committee postponed a vote on the bill but could reconsider it in coming weeks.

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

By Chris Sanders, communications director. Policy analyst Stephen Stetson contributed to this report. Posted Jan. 22, 2014.