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Old 01-19-2003, 12:28 PM
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danielle danielle is offline
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Default Alabama Death Row most crowded by state's size

01/19/03

CARLA CROWDER
News staff writer

Alabama has taken the lead on capital punishment with the country's largest Death Row for its population size, according to Justice Department statistics.

At the close of 2001, there were 186 prisoners on Death Row, or one for every 24,002 residents. That total pushed the state past Nevada and Oklahoma, which led Alabama for several years.

The new ranking comes at a time when mistakes in capital cases have led some states to halt executions. Illinois Gov. George Ryan this month freed four men and then emptied that state's Death Row by commuting sentences of 167 condemned inmates to life in prison. Ryan, a Republican, said Illinois' system was "arbitrary and capricious and therefore immoral," as well as "haunted by the demon of error."

His move came after a commission presented dozens of proposals to restore confidence in the Illinois death penalty. Maryland Gov. Parris Glendening, a Democrat, issued a moratorium during a similar study there.

No such commission has studied Alabama's cases. Supporters of the death penalty say Alabama's appeals process prevents the kinds of errors that resulted in 13 Illinois inmates being wrongfully convicted, which preceded the Illinois study.

"The fact that we have the longest appeals process in the country certainly would allow any reviewing court to be able to assess whether a conviction of a death sentence was illegal or unfair," said Clay Crenshaw, Alabama assistant attorney general over capital litigation.

Jefferson County District Attorney David Barber pointed to the fact that capital convictions are reviewed by the Criminal Court of Appeals and the Alabama Supreme Court. In his view, the process is too lengthy, but efforts to remove a step have stalled in the Legislature.


Delay in review:

Cases often are stalled several years at the Court of Criminal Appeals, and what happens there does not matter because the state Supreme Court still must review them. "It's a waste," said Barber, a 30-year veteran prosecutor.

Barber's take on Illinois Gov. Ryan's action: "I think he's lost his mind."

"Sure there's flaws," he said. "The death penalty opponents are trying to make a science out of the criminal justice system and you can't do that."

Death penalty opponents agree with supporters that there are vast differences between capital punishment laws in Illinois and Alabama.

Opponents say Alabama requires far fewer safeguards against error.

"There's a far greater risk of an innocent person being sentenced to death in Alabama than in Illinois," said Stephen Bright, director of the Southern Center for Human Rights, a nonprofit firm in Atlanta that represents the indigent and advocates against capital punishment. "In my opinion Alabama provides the worst representation to people facing the death penalty of any of the states that have capital punishment."

While Illinois has a public defender system and an office of publicly funded attorneys for appeals, Alabama does not. When seasoned capital defense attorneys have taken on Alabama appeals, several Death Row inmates have been freed. But with Alabama's crowded Death Row, many condemned inmates have no lawyers through the appeals phase.

Bright said the length of the appeals process is irrelevant to accuracy.

"If the lawyer has not done the investigation and found and presented critical evidence, the appellate courts will never know about the missing information," Bright said.

He cited the case of Gary Drinkard. The Morgan County man spent five years on Death Row before he got a new set of lawyers, including one from Bright's office. He was freed in 2001 when the lawyers showed his back injury was so severe he could not have committed the crime.

In another case, defendant Judy Haney's attorney was so drunk that the penalty phase of her trial was suspended while the judge sent him to jail to sober up. She wound up on Alabama's Death Row until a New York law firm in 1997 got her sentence reduced to life without parole.

Among the Illinois panel's proposals for improvements: videotaping police interrogations to reduce the likelihood of coerced, false confessions; limiting the use of jailhouse snitches, whose testimony has been found unreliable; and reducing the types of murder cases that make someone death-eligible.

"Every recommendation that the Illinois commission made would apply to Alabama, except the evidence would be 100 times more compelling," said Bryan Stevenson, director of the Equal Justice Initiative, a Montgomery nonprofit that primarily represents poor people in capital cases.

But Crenshaw, in the Alabama attorney general's office, said the mistakes in Illinois prove the public defender system is obviously not working.

In Alabama, court-appointed lawyers for indigent Death Row defendants must have five years' criminal law experience, he said. Crenshaw has 11 years experience as a prosecutor.

The Justice Department's study was released in December. One explanation for Alabama's fast-growing Death Row: The state did not execute anyone in 2001. Oklahoma and Texas, two other busy Death Rows, executed 18 and 17 inmates, respectively, that year.

In 2002, Alabama executed two people.


Full speed ahead:

Stevenson said Justice Department's rankings show that Alabama "is moving full speed ahead without blinking an eye or asking any questions about whether this is a sensible direction in which to move."

While the American Bar Association has called for a nationwide halt to executions until corrections are made in the system, no such action has passed the Alabama State Bar.

Birmingham attorney Bill Clark proposed an Alabama resolution, but it was tabled by the Board of Bar Commissioners.

Bills for similar moratoriums have failed to pass the Legislature.

"There's no constituency for indigents in jail," said Clark, now president-elect of the Alabama State Bar
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Old 01-20-2003, 02:37 AM
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tekela tekela is offline
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Alabama inmates really need help. It is sad to hear they do not even have a Public Defender system. It sounds as if they do not have a pray in the appeals process without attorney's.

Danielle, Thanks for the post!
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