By Bill Britt
Alabama Political Reporter
MONTGOMERY—On Wednesday, Attorney General Luther Strange announced his office’s agenda for the upcoming legislative session. Accompanied by prosecutors, law enforcement officers and state legislators, Strange canvased the State setting out his slate of criminal justice reforms. The Attorney General is asking legislators to strengthen the death penalty appeals process and to provide better investigative tools to fight crime.
“During my time as Attorney General, I have observed the dedication of law enforcement and prosecutors and their determination to protect the citizens of Alabama. I have listened to their concerns for changes that are needed to give them better tools and to make the criminal justice process stronger and more effective,” said Attorney General Strange.
The package that will be presented during the 2014 session will include The Fair Justice Act, offered by Attorney General Strange and the Alabama District Attorneys Association, which would amend two parts of Alabama’s death penalty law. This legislation is sponsored by Rep. Lynn Greer and Sen. Bill Holtzclaw.
“Death penalty appeals in Alabama seem endless, with excessive delays that serve only to prolong pain and postpone justice for the victims of these heinous crimes. We are proposing fair and sensible changes to make the system work better for everyone. We also send a clear message that we will not tolerate the slaughter of our children at schools, with changes in the law that specify it is a capital crime to murder them and others who are particularly vulnerable.”
Montgomery County District Attorney Ellen Brooks spoke during the press briefing about the need to shorten the appeals process without encumbering an inmate’s right to appeal. Conversely, she was quite adamant how unfair it is for the victims and for law enforcement to have a convicted murderer languish on death row for 25 to 30 years. Brook spoke of criminals who had committed heinous murders and sentence to death over a quarter of a century ago who are still sitting in Alabama jails. “That is not justice, “ said Brooks.
The Attorney General’s outline of the bills is as follows:
The First bill addresses the cumbersome and inefficient appeals process. Following a capital conviction, there is a period of “direct appeals” in which the defendant may seek to overturn the conviction and death sentence. Afterwards, the defendant may file a “Rule 32” petition for post-conviction relief to challenge the conviction and death sentence. Currently, defendants may wait until one year after the conclusion of direct appeals to their convictions and sentences before even beginning Rule 32 appeals of their sentences.
The Fair Justice Act requires capital defendants to file Rule 32 petitions within 180 days of filing their first direct appeal. Capital defendants would receive better representation by having their claims considered earlier in the process, and indigent defendants would be appointed counsel for the Rule 32 petition within 30 days of being sentenced. Finally, the Fair Justice Act calls for a final decision by the circuit court on the Rule 32 petition within 180 days after the direct appeal is completed. This act will make the appellate process more efficient while both maintaining the same opportunities for court review and enhancing representation currently provided to death row defendants.
The Second bill provides important protections for school children and certain others who are particularly vulnerable by expanding classifications for killings that may be prosecuted as capital offenses. These offenses would now include the murder of any person on a school campus, any person in a day care or child care facility, anyone who is covered by a “protection from abuse” order when the murder was committed for intimidation or retaliation for the order, and any family member of law enforcement or a public official when the murder was intended for intimidation or retaliation against the officer or official. The Fair Justice Act also makes it an aggravating circumstance—a factor to be considered in determining whether to impose the death penalty—to murder a law enforcement officer when the officer is acting in the line of duty.
“The Fair Justice Act takes a comprehensive approach to streamlining the appeals process in death penalty cases so that family members of victims will not have to suffer for decades awaiting justice to be done,” said St. Clair District Attorney Richard J. Minor, who is President of the Alabama District Attorneys Association. “The bill requires that direct and collateral appeals proceed simultaneously, while ensuring that those defendants sentenced by the court to death will have their rights protected at all stages of the process. This approach will significantly cut down the appeals process from what is currently a 16-year odyssey and increasing.”
Two additional bills included in the Attorney General’s legislative package emerged from the Attorney General’s Special Prosecutions Alliance, a partnership of State agencies that Attorney General Strange brought together in 2012 in a major cooperative initiative to better fight public corruption. The Child Protection and Safe Streets Act of 2014 is sponsored by Rep. Allen Treadaway. The Alabama Witness Safe Harbor Act is sponsored by Rep. Mike Ball.
The Child Protection and Safe Streets Act of 2014 would enable law enforcement to monitor phone communications among criminals to gather evidence that may include admissions of guilt and even information about future crimes that might be prevented. Although wiretapping can be a valuable and effective tool in combating crime, current state law prohibits it use, even by law enforcement. Yet 43 other states and the federal government recognize the necessity and allow for appropriate wiretapping with the safeguard of a court order. Court orders for wiretaps would last only for 30 days, but could be extended for another 30 days. Wiretaps would only be used for crimes of murder, kidnapping, child pornography, human trafficking, sex offenses involving children under 12 and felony drug offenses.
The Alabama Witness Safe Harbor Act repairs a deficiency in current state law regarding immunity from prosecution for witnesses. Citizens have the right not to testify if doing so might incriminate them, so valuable testimony may be acquired by granting such persons immunity from prosecution. Yet in Alabama, there is a cumbersome procedure that requires the witness to agree to accept immunity, instead of the prosecutor granting immunity and being able to compel testimony. Alabama is the only state that allows the witness to decline immunity and thus to withhold testimony.
“As they currently stand, Alabama’s laws regarding wiretapping and witness immunity serve to tie the hands of law enforcement personnel and prosecutors, and may actually work for the benefit of criminals,” said Attorney General Strange. “This is simply wrong. We owe it to our law enforcement and prosecutors to give them the tools they need to be able to fulfill their duty to protect the people of Alabama and to fight those who would harm us.”
Alabama’s hospitalized COVID-19 patients Sunday at highest number since Sept. 2.
It’s a trend that has public health officials and hospital staff concerned that the state may be headed for another surge.
Alabama hospitals on Sunday were caring for 920 COVID-19 inpatients, the highest number of patients since Sept. 2 and a 23 percent increase from a month ago.
It’s a trend that has public health officials and hospital staff concerned that the state may be headed for another surge just as the regular flu season begins to fill up hospital beds.
Alabama state health officer Dr. Scott Harris by phone Friday called the rising new cases and hospitalizations “worrisome.”
Alabama’s seven-day average of daily hospitalized COVID-19 patients was 864 on Sunday, the highest it’s been since Sept. 8. State hospitals saw a peak of COVID-19 inpatients on Aug. 6, when 1,613 patients were being cared for.
The state added 1,079 new confirmed and probable cases on Sunday, and Alabama’s 14-day average of new daily cases hit 1,358 Sunday, the highest it’s been since Aug. 13. Two “data dumps” to the Alabama Department of Public Health of older confirmed cases Thursday and Friday elevated the daily counts on those days, but after weeks of daily cases hovering around 700 and 800, the state now regularly sees more than 1,000 cases a day.
The older test results skew the state’s percent positivity, but Alabama’s 14-day average of percent positivity on Sunday was 20 percent. Just prior to the addition of those older cases, the 14-day average was 15 percent. Public health officials say it should be at or below five percent or cases are going undetected.
As cases continue to rise, the number of tests being performed statewide continue to decline, which is increasing Alabama’s percent positivity rate. The 14-day average of daily tests was 6,619 on Sunday — a 5 percent decrease from two weeks ago.
There have been 2,866 confirmed and probable COVID-19 deaths statewide. The state’s 14-day average of daily confirmed deaths was 14 on Sunday, up from 12 two weeks ago.
The United States on Saturday recorded its second highest day of new cases since the start of the pandemic, with 83,718 new cases, according to Johns Hopkins University. Saturday’s peak was just 39 cases fewer than the country’s all-time daily high, set on Friday. As of Sunday, 225,061 people have died from COVID-19 in the U.S.
Trump Truck and boat parades this weekend
As Election Day draws near, Alabama Republicans are excited about promoting the re-election of Donald J. Trump as President and the election of Tommy Tuberville for U.S. Senate. This weekend two pro-President Trump events are happening in the state. There will be a truck parade from Ashland to Phenix City on Saturday sponsored by the Clay County Republican Party, while there will also be a boat parade on Wilson Lake in the Shoals sponsored by the Colbert County Republican Party on Sunday.
The pickup trucks will assemble at the Ashland Industrial Park in Clay County, 8240 Hwy 9, Ashland. There is a pre-departure rally at 10:00 a.m. central standard time. The trucks will depart at 11:00 a.m. and then proceed on a parade route that will take them into the bitterly contested swing state of Georgia. The Trump Pickup Parade will wind through east Alabama and West Georgia traveling through LaGrange and Columbus before concluding near the Alabama/Georgia line in Phenix City, 332 Woodland Drive, Phenix City at approximately 2:00 p.m. central time. Speakers will begin at 3:00. Trump flags will be on sale at the event.
The Phenix Motorsports Park will be hosting what sponsor hope could possibly the world’s largest Pickup Tuck parade in U.S. history that is routing over 50 mile through Georgia in effort to “pickup” President Trump’s numbers in GA.
A number dignitaries have been invited to address the Phenix City rally, including Coach Tuberville. Former State Sen. Shadrack McGill, Trump Victory Finance Committee member former State Rep. Perry O. Hooper Jr., and Paul Wellborn, the President and CEO of the largest Family owned Kitchen Cabinet manufacture in the USA are among the featured speakers who have committed to speak at the event.
Entertainment will be provided by: Charity Bowden, an up and coming country music singer who was the runner up on “The Voice”. Charity will sing ‘I am Proud to be an American’ as well as songs from her Voice performances. The McGill Girls will also perform. The three beautiful and talented sisters will be singing patriotic songs in three part harmony. Geoff Carlisle, a professional DJ will be keeping the crowd pumped with music and entertainment.
Following the speakers and the entertainment there will Trump truck-vs- Joe Bidden truck races down the drag strip for the finale.
The Northwest Alabama boat parade will be on Sunday. The boats will gather at 2:00 p.m. near Turtle Point and then the flotilla will parade around the open waters of Wilson Lake til 3_00 p.m.. There will be a contest for best decorated Trump boats.
Trump supporters have held a number of large boat parades across the state to show their support for the re-election of Pres. Trump.
Boat parade sponsors say that this parade will be: pro-American, pro-law enforcement, pro-military.
COVID-19 hospitalizations, new cases continue to rise
The number of rising hospitalized COVID-19 patients in Alabama is a concerning sign of a possible coming surge of the disease, state health experts said Friday. Alabama hospitals were caring for 888 coronavirus patients Friday, the highest number since Sept 9.
UAB Hospital was caring for around 80 COVID-19 inpatients Friday afternoon, said Dr. Rachael Lee, an infectious disease specialist at UAB, speaking to reporters Friday. UAB Hospital hasn’t had that many coronavirus inpatients since Aug. 18, when the disease was surging statewide.
“We have been dealing with this since March, and I think it’s easy for us to drop our guard,” Lee said.
Alabama added 3,852 new coronavirus cases on Friday, but 1,287 of them were older positive antigen tests, conducted in June through October and submitted to ADPH by a facility in Mobile, according to the department. Still, Alabama’s daily case count has been increasing, concerning health officials already worried that as the weather turns colder and the flu season ramps up, Alabama could see a surge like the state had in July.
Alabama’s 14-day average of new daily cases was 1,247 on Friday, the highest it’s been since Sept 4. Over the last 14 days, Alabama has added 17,451 new COVID-19 cases.
Friday’s inclusion of those older positive test results throws off the day’s percent positivity, by Thursday the state’s percent of tests that were positive was nearly 16 percent. Public health officials say it should be at or below five percent or cases are going undetected.
The state added 16 COVID-19 deaths on Friday, bringing to total confirmed deaths statewide to 2,859. Over the last two weeks, 206 deaths were reported in the state. Alabama’s 14-day average of new daily deaths on Friday was 15.
Alabama state health officer Dr. Scott Harris told APR by phone Friday called the rising new cases and hospitalizations “worrisome.”
Harris noted the data dump of older confirmed cases in Friday’s data, but said “but nevertheless, I think it’s clear our numbers are going up.”
Harris said it’s not yet clear what’s causing the continued spread, but said it may be due at least in part to larger private gatherings. ADPH staff has mentioned a few outbreaks association with such gatherings, but Harris said it’s hard to know for certain if that’s the major driver in the state’s rising numbers.
“It’s football season and the holidays are coming up and school is back in session,” Harris said. “I think people are just not being as safe as they were.”
Harris noted that on ADPH’s color-coded, risk indicator dashboard, red counties, which denotes counties with rising cases and percent positivity, the 17 red counties on Friday were distributed across the state.
“So there’s not one event, or even a handful of events. It seems like there’s just a lot of things happening in a lot of places,” Harris said.
Alabama’s rising numbers are mirrored in many states. The U.S. reported more than 71,600 new COVID-19 cases on Thursday, nearing the country’s record highs, set in July.
Birmingham approves $1.3 million contract for real-time crime center technology
Woodfin repeated that facial recognition capabilities will not be used in accordance with the contract.
The Birmingham City Council approved a five-year, $1.3 million contract with Motorola this week to provide new technology for the police department’s real-time crime center amid unease and public concern over the potential use of facial recognition software within the new systems.
Mayor Randall Woodfin insisted in his remarks made before the council that the new technology is meant to integrate existing hardware and technology inside the real-time crime center. “You’re not buying any additional new equipment,” he said, “You’re buying something to integrate all those systems.”
The software suite includes Motorola Solutions’s CommandCentral Aware, a system that aggregates video, image and other data information into one interface, and BriefCam, a “video synopsis” system that will further integrate and analyze information from Birmingham’s ShotSpotter systems, public cameras and police body cameras.
Briefcam offers facial recognition capabilities, which was the main concern of community members speaking before the council, and the risk that use of the technology could disproportionately affect Black people. Facial recognition technology has a record of racial bias and misidentifies Black people at rates five to 10 times higher than white people.
“Despite assurances that there will not be facial recognition implemented at this phase that does not prevent it from being implemented in the future,” said Joseph Baker, Founder of I Believe in Birmingham and one of the Birmingham residents voicing concern on the proposal. “I believe that this software, if fully implemented, can easily lead to violations of unreasonable searches.”
Another resident who spoke against the resolution was Byron Lagrone, director of engineering at medical software solutions company Abel Healthcare Enterprises. Lagrone pointed to IBM and Amazon as examples of companies that have halted or abandoned facial recognition and object tracking software altogether over racial bias concerns.
“The prevailing attitude, among technical people is this technology is not effective, and it causes high amounts of harm for next to no gain,” Lagrone said.
Woodfin repeated that facial recognition capabilities will not be used in accordance with the contract.
“It’s explicit in this contract that facial recognition will not be used,” Woodfin said, “[If] facial recognition wants to be used in the future of this city. It would have to be approved by this body. … The mayor’s office or the police department doesn’t have unilateral power to use facial recognition. That is not part of what our contractual relationship is with Motorola.”
Woodfin also clarified that the total $1.3 million price of the contract will not be paid as a lump sum but spread out over the five-year commitment.
The city council voted 8 to 1 to approve the contract, with District 8 Councilman Steven Hoyt speaking in favor of the use of facial recognition capabilities.
“You can’t say, ‘I’m going to build a house but I’m not going to use the restroom,’” Hoyt said. “If it’s in the house, you’re going to use the restroom. … If it has the capability of facial recognition, guess what’s going to happen? You’re going to use it. I’m going to vote for it because I know we’ve got to have every tool we can garner to fight crime, because it’s out of hand.”
Hoyt also suggested a review of the information collected by the new system apparatus.
“I do think, for the public’s sake, we need to have some way we review that and see how it’s being used,” Hoyt said. “We need that to go along with this.”
District 3 Councilwoman Valerie A. Abbott — who said she was the victim of a burglary the day before the vote — echoed the mayor’s insistence that the facial recognition capabilities would not be deployed unless authorized by the city council, reading a letter from Motorola stating “in order to enable facial recognition, Motorola will require an addendum or change order to the contract,” which would have to come before a public meeting of the city council.
“I too would not want facial recognition,” Abbot said, “I’m voting in favor of this because the majority of my constituents are telling me they want more and better policing, capture of criminals, prevention of crime.”
District 5 Councilman Darrell O’Quinn was the lone no vote among the near-unanimous city council, stating that he had “some reservations about how we’re doing this and will vote my conscience.” Later, O’Quinn was quoted in BirminghamWatch, saying his vote reflected his concerns about “taking on a new debt obligation in the midst of a projected $63 million shortfall in revenue.”