By Chip Brownlee
Alabama Political Reporter
MONTGOMERY — A House committee gave a favorable report to a Senate bill Tuesday that would shorten the time frame for death penalty appeals in an effort to reduce the number of years that can pass while an inmate stays on death row.
The bill would require death row inmates to argue all claims during their appeal. Death row inmates are currently allowed to first appeal trial errors in the Court of Criminal Appeals. Once the trial error appeal is finished, they can then appeal on other issues like ineffective counsel.
The bill, sponsored by Sen. Cam Ward, would have both appeals happen simultaneously, shaving six to seven years off of the capital punishment appeals process. Some state appeals of death penalty convictions can take up to 18 or 20 years, leaving inmates in the state prison system.
“There’s still got to be a cap somewhere to prevent people from taking advantage of the system,” Ward said of the bill.
Democrats opposed the bill, citing examples of death-row inmates who were exonerated decades after their convictions.
“This is a very emotional matter for me. Not many pieces that come before me are emotion, but this is personal,” said Rep. Juandalynn Givan, D-Mobile. “Not everybody in the penal system is guilty of the crimes that they were convicted of.”
Ward told the committee that he based his bill off of the appeals process in Texas, which is shorter than Alabama’s. Inmates will have the same number of appeals, they will just run at the same time instead of being consecutive.
“I am certainly for ensuring that we have justice done,” said Rep. David Faulkner. “But I also think it’s important that justice be done in a fair and reasonable time period, for everyone involved.”
Other inmates stay on death row for as long as 30 years, like Anthony Ray Hinton, who spent 30 years on death row for a crime he didn’t commit. He was released in February 2015 after being exonerated on two capital murder charges.
He was convicted after lawyers asserted that a gun taken from his home was the same gun used in both of the murders. Hinton’s attorneys from Montgomery’s Equal Justice Initiative argued that the gun couldn’t be matched to the scene. Three firearms experts testified in 2002, but prosecutors refused to re-examine the case.
The US Supreme Court later reversed lower court appeals and a trial was granted. The Alabama Department of Forensic Sciences later confirmed that the weapon used couldn’t be matched to the crime.
Ward’s bill could have shortened the state appeals process, but would not affect the federal appeals process. Death penalty cases, like those of Hinton and profile death-row inmate Thomas Arthur, often make it into the federal judiciary, where state appeals procedures have little effect.
Arthur recently escaped his seventh execution date after the US Supreme Court stayed his execution. The Court eventually refused to take up his case, leaving ADOC to reschedule his execution, which is now set for May. Arthur was first convicted in 1982 of capital murder.
Democrats were still concerned that the bill could lead to innocent people being executed.
“If I had my choice, we could run outside ride now and burn it up (the bill),” said Rep. Chris England, D-Tuscaloosa, a fierce proponent of death penalty reform. “This bill substantially increases the likelihood that someone who is innocent will be put to death because we want to rush through the process and kill someone.”
The bill now heads to the House floor as the end of the legislative session looms.