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Old 06-29-2003, 12:58 PM
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danielle danielle is offline
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Default Gibson leaves prison -- for surgery

Gibson leaves prison -- for surgery


Larry Gibson got out of prison last week, long enough for open-heart surgery. Then it was back into Donaldson Correctional Center, a maximum-security state penitentiary near Birmingham.

Nobody told his family he was going to have heart surgery. No one except Larry will tell them how he's doing.

Larry went to prison in 1992 for a crime his son Shawn now says he committed. It's a crime that might have landed Shawn in prison for perhaps two or three years. For Larry, it resulted in a sentence of life without parole.

Larry, now 53, had been convicted of three non-violent felonies as a teenager 22 years earlier. These three convictions, added to another felony, brought him under the provisions of Alabama's Habitual Offender Act. Once Larry was convicted of attempted murder, the judge was required by law to sentence him to life without parole.

Even though no one was seriously injured in the incident. Even though the jury was never told that it had the option of convicting him of a misdemeanor. Even though the man who prosecuted him now says that a sentence of life without parole for this offense borders on cruel and unusual punishment.

I've told the story in my earlier columns. During a beer-joint brawl just before midnight in Larry's hometown of Brookside, someone shot a .22-caliber bullet through the rear window of a pickup occupied by two young men who had stopped to observe the fracas. Flying glass cut the driver of the truck behind the ear. He went home after receiving first aid. The truck's occupants identified Larry Gibson as the shooter.

Larry's son Shawn has his father's build and closely resembles him in the face. Shawn told me several weeks ago that it was he, not his father, who fired the shots. He told the same story to others around Brookside. But he never told the story in court.

In the federal justice system, there's a remedy for situations such as this. The president of the United States has the power to pardon offenders or commute their sentences. This means that when the justice system clearly goes awry, the president can cut through the legalities and on his own authority nullify a court sentence.

The chief executive of Alabama has no such power, according to his spokesman, David Asbell. Asbell said the power to pardon and commute was taken away from the governor about 50 years ago as a safeguard against the selling of pardons. We sure do have high opinions of our elected officials, don't we?

Larry's chance of ever seeing the outside of a prison seem dim at this point. And while he's in the maximum-security prison, his soul belongs to the state.

His sister-in-law, Vickie Gibson of Medical Lake, Wash., called to tell me that he had undergone open-heart surgery. Larry had been able to telephone her collect from the hospital.

My attempts at learning his condition from prison or medical sources proved futile. A spokesman from the Department of Corrections informed me that the department was not allowed to reveal medical conditions of inmates, either to family or media.

The hospital's media spokesman said he could give me no information on a prisoner's condition.

The warden at Donaldson told me the same thing. Larry could call his family, he said, but the prison would give out no information.

Vickie, whose husband James is Larry's brother, said Larry has spoken to them since being returned to the prison. He said he had been provided with a wheelchair.

"He was having a hard time breathing," said Vickie. "He said it's hot."

Larry has exhausted all his appeals through the court system. The appeals courts have ruled that his court-appointed attorney represented him competently. He cannot cite Shawn's admission of guilt as grounds for a new trial; the courts won't consider evidence on appeal that could have been presented at the time of trial.

He can't appeal on grounds that his sentence was out of proportion to the offense; it complied with the law at the time. The Legislature has since modified the law to allow the possibility of parole if the prior felonies were non-violent -- as Larry's were. But the Legislature took care to specify that the relief could not be retroactive.

Apparently, Larry's only basis for appeal is innocence, but at this point the burden of proof has shifted. Larry would have to prove by a preponderance of evidence that he really is innocent. In the initial trial, it was up to the state to prove, beyond reasonable doubt, that he was guilty.

Whether Larry is guilty or innocent, he has been in prison more than 10 years. That's far longer than a first-offender would have been required to serve. It's longer than a recidivist whose prior offenses were non-violent would have to serve under present law.

I don't know how Gov. Bob Riley would respond if he had the power to commute sentences. But it seems to me that Alabama should endow its chief executive with the power to pardon and commute when justice clearly requires it. Just about everyone familiar with Larry Gibson and his story will concede that, in this instance, the law has led to massive overkill.

James and Vickie Gibson are willing to give Larry a home in Washington state for the rest of his life. James is retired from the Air Force and is a former corrections officer.

"They won't have to worry about sending him to us; we'll come and get him," Vickie said. "We'll take care of him and give him family love and support."

But unless somebody discovers a legal opening that isn't now obvious, Larry will spend the rest of his life in prison, struggling for breath in the summer heat and hoping his heart can stand the strain.
Monica Danielle
On September 22, 2003, my better half came home after 657 days in an Alabama prison!!!

And he's now forever free - passing away from this life and into the next - on January 9, 2010.

My Sweet Wayne
January 21, 1954 - January 9, 2010

I'll always love you.
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