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Attorney General “commutes” death sentence without authority to do so

Bill Britt

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Attorney General Steve Marshall speaks on a proposed rewrite of the state ethics laws. (Chip Brownlee/APR)

According to lawyers for convicted murderer and death row inmate Doyle Lee Hamm, he and the state of Alabama entered into a “confidential settlement agreement…preventing any further execution attempts” by the state on March 26.

The offices of Attorney General Steve Marshall handled the arrangements for Hamm’s settlement. However, there is no provision in state law for Marshall to commute or negotiate away a death penalty sentence. Contrary to his actions, the state’s attorney general is required by statute to uphold the death penalty in Alabama.

Hamm was convicted and sentenced to death in the murder of Patrick Cunningham, a motel clerk in Cullman, Alabama, in the 1980s. After a botched execution that drew national attention, Marshall is now agreeing not to pursue another attempt at carrying out Hamm’s death senrence.  Marshall has agreed not to seek a new death warrant for Hamm’s execution.

Under the state’s 1901 Constitution, only the governor has the power of commutation. The Governor’s Office confirmed to APR that Gov. Kay Ivey did not commute Hamm’s sentence, leaving the question as to how Marshall did so in doubt. However, under the State Supreme Court’s Cornerstone ruling, Ivey can take over if her attorney general fails to enforce the law.

The Alabama Political Reporter asked the Ivey Administration if the governor will exercise her responsibility under Cornerstone. Her office did not immediately respond to APR‘s request.

The attorney general has a constitutional responsibility to uphold and defend the state’s death penalty — not to bargain it away in civil litigation.

The night before Hamm’s failed execution, Marshall, a former Democrat turned Republican in 2012, took to social media to burnish his conservative bonafides by announcing his support of Hamm’s death sentence, saying, “Tomorrow I will not request that Doyle Hamm’s execution be stopped, but instead I will ask that justice be served.”

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After the gruesome details of the state’s failed attempt to put Hamm to death were published along with photos and a medical examiner’s report, Marshall appears to be backtracking on any further attempts to kill Hamm, due to the optics.

APR has published the horrifying consequences of the state’s mishandled attempt to carry out Hamm’s death sentence in February.

While no future efforts to execute Hamm may be a welcome to those who oppose the death penalty, it is worth noting Marshall has no legal standing to negotiate a settlement agreement, which, in effect, commutes Hamm’s sentence from death to life in prison.

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Hamm’s lawyers, supporters and those who see state-sponsored execution as cruel and unusual punishment have cheered Marshall’s decision to halt Hamm’s death sentence permanently.

However, a legal challenge to Marshall’s standing to enter into such an arrangement could reverse the hard-won victory.

Marshall and his staff have refused to comment.

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