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Crime

Violent crimes focus of Alabama Bureau of Pardons and Paroles public information

Eddie Burkhalter

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The Alabama Bureau of Pardons and Paroles since November sent messages in tweets and press releases about those convicted of violent crimes, and nearly nothing on non-violent offenders seeking paroles. 

Since parole hearings resumed that month the tone of the Bureau’s social media posts changed from informational to something much closer to fear-mongering, full of language about violence and details of past crimes. 

APR last week began asking questions about the agency’s focus on violent crimes, and on Monday the tone of the Bureau’s press release on upcoming hearings changed again. Gone was the focus on violent crimes, and in its place was information on all incarcerated people scheduled for hearings, serving time for both violent and non-violent crimes. 

The Bureau’s focus on spreading messages about violence criminals has some worried that the the agency is purposefully pushing a narrative that the entirety of the state’s prison population is too dangerous to reenter society, and at a time when Gov. Kay Ivey continues to push for construction of three new mega-prisons to ease overcrowding. 

In October state prisons were at 170 percent of capacity, according to Alabama Department of Corrections statistics. 

Previous attempts by lawmakers to gain support for a bond issuance to pay for new prisons failed. Ivey announced in February 2019 her plan to build the prisons through a build-lease partnership with private companies, which would not require the state to borrow the lump sum to build. 

The state faces the possibility of a federal takeover of its prisons, which are plagued with violence and overcrowding, problems detailed in a report in April by the U.S. Department of Justice, which found that Alabama may be in violation of prisoners’ Constitutional rights to protections due to rampant sexual abuse, assaults, homicides and suicides. 

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“What is coming out of Pardons and Paroles, from the newsletter that they send out to the tweets and that website, it’s all propaganda. It’s straight up propaganda at its finest,” said Dillon Nettles, a policy analyst at ACLU of Alabama, speaking to APR by phone last week. “They are essentially trying to relitigate these cases, and not just in front of the board, but in the court of public opinion.” 

Of 106 tweets by the Bureau’s official account in January, 90 included information about violent crimes and used the word “violence” in hashtags and in the body of the texts. Many give the details of past crimes. Press releases issued by the agency since November centered around parole denials for those convicted of violent crimes. 

“If you look at Georgia, Tennessee and you look at Mississippi, you will not see any language rhetoric like this coming out of their parole boards on their website on their social media,” Nettles said. “It’s just not a common thing.” 

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In a review of more than two dozen state pardons and parole board social media accounts across the country, no other state agency focuses as Alabama’s agency does on violent offenders. Many other state agencies had no social media accounts, and some appeared inactive for long periods of time.

Most of those state agencies responsible for parole decisions use social media to inform the public of office closures, employee appreciation matters, state government happenings and law enforcement news. 

Several states, including New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania and Georgia, used social media to publish information on programs that help incarcerated people reenter society and successfully keep from returning. 

The Bureau’s new director, Charlie Graddick, a former circuit judge, state attorney general and architect of Alabama’s Habitual Offender Act appointed to his post in July, 2019, describe the state’s inmates in op-eds and in interviews as too dangerous to be paroled. Graddick told reporters in January that “we don’t have people there anymore that really qualify. They just don’t.”

Terry Abbott, a communications liaison for Gov. Kay Ivey’s office to the Bureau, explained to APR last week that it’s all about giving the public what they want. 

“We cover the violent offenders because of public and community and media interest in the issue of violent crime,” Abbott wrote in a message to APR in response to questions about the messaging. “The news releases are only about the violent offenders. There are many inmates considered for parole who do not have violent offenses on their records. In the news releases you’re only reading about the violent offenders.” 

Abbott in a follow-up message to APR said that each Monday a new release lists all the violent offenders who are to be considered for parole that week, and on hearing days additional news releases announce the three-member board’s decision on those cases 

“We report which violent offenders were granted parole and which were denied. So none of the violent offenders are left out,” Abbott said. 

Asked whether he could provide APR with any requests from the public seeking regular information on incarcerated people serving for convictions of violent crimes, Abbott explained that it wasn’t a matter of  public requests, but one of “broad, general public, media, public official interest in the issue of violent crime that affects communities far and wide.”  

“Look at any newspaper and you’ll see coverage of such crimes. Newspapers all over Alabama publish stories about violent crime, including parole board decisions about violent offenders,” Abbott said in the message. “The issue is discussed frequently in social media. Public officials frequently talk with concern about violent crime. The broad public interest in the issue is clear and obvious.”

“I think they’re selecting what they want the public to be interested in,” said state Sen. Cam Ward, R- Alabaster, speaking to APR by phone last week. “I think releasing all the information is good. That way the general public can decide for themselves what’s important and what’s not.” 

Ward said he’s not comfortable telling the Bureau of Pardons and Paroles how to operate their agency, but that “more transparency is better.” 

“Regardless of who you’re paroling, make a full and complete list. I think that only helps them in their job, and I think it helps the general public have a better education about what they do and  what’s going on there,” Ward said. 

It’s unclear who was responsible for the Bureau’s decision to focus on violent criminals in publicly released information. Asked whether Graddick had requested that change, Abbott said “No he did not” and declined to discuss the matter further. 

Unlike other Bureau employees, Abbott’s salary is paid through Ivey’s office, according to state records. He was appointed by Ivey as her office’s communications liaison to the Bureau on Aug. 28, 2019, and was to start the job on September 1, according to Abbott’s letter of appointment from Ivey, which sets his pay at $86,424 annually. 

It was unclear whether the position of a communications liaison for Ivey’s office to the Bureau was a newly-created position for Abbott. Ivey’s office, through a spokeswoman, declined to answer questions on the record about Abbott’s employment, and referred questions to the Alabama Personnel Department. 

Tara Hetzel, an attorney with the state State Personnel Department, in a message to APR on Monday said that Ivey can hire and assign employees to the Bureau as needed. 

“While this is not done often, it’s definitely not unusual,” Hetzel said, adding that one other Bureau staffer, Olan Tucker, was also hired to work at the Bureau of Pardons and Paroles. 

Abbott is the only Bureau employee being paid by Ivey’s office, however, according to state records. Olan Tucker, who goes by the name Skip, is paid by the Bureau itself, according to those records, and began receiving paychecks in October 2019. 

Skip Tucker, former news editor of the Daily Mountain Eagle and former communications staff for Graddick in years past, wrote an op-ed last year on Graddick’s appointment praising his former boss as a man tough on criminals. 

“Graddick’s back. Those two words are fraught with meaning for those who run badly afoul of the law, especially on a routine basis. For the habitually violent criminal, the words are heavy with nothing but trouble. He wrote Alabama’s Habitual Offender Act,” Tucker wrote in an op-ed published by Alabama Daily News on Aug. 1, 2019. 

Days after he began at the Bureau, Graddick suspended paroles hearings citing problems with the agency’s victim notification process. 

Former Pardons and Parole Board chair Lyn Head told APR earlier this month that the board was issuing notices as required by state law ,and denied Graddick’s allegation to the contrary. Head resigned from the board in September. 

Hearings resumed in November, but the number of people being seen by the board dropped dramatically. During November and December of 2019 just 17 people were granted parole, according to the ACLU of Alabama.  

Abbott told APR last month that the agency was ramping up those hearings and had a target of about 540 hearings set for March, substantially more than the 150 hearings that were scheduled for January. 

Nettles at the ACLU of Alabama told APR that he would not be surprised if the rhetoric about violent offenders coming out of the Bureau and drop in the number of people being paroled isn’t meant to build public and legislative support for the three new prisons. 

“That has been the only solution that we’ve heard from the governor’s office so far to address this prison crisis since the DOJ report came out,” Nettles said, adding that the DOJ report made clear that new prison construction wouldn’t solve all of Alabama’s prison problems.  

“And it is clear that it is created with a motivation and intentionality behind it to steer public opinion towards people being fearful, or towards people being in favor of more punitive policies and less reform,” Nettles said.

It was unclear Monday if the Bureau’s new press release, which contained information on all incarcerated people instead of just those convicted of violent crimes, was evidence of a decision to remove the focus on violent crimes in publicly released information.

“The new format is for efficiency, as we increase the number of hearings each week,” Abbott said in a message to APR on Monday afternoon. “It provides all the the basic information to the media and lets them know where to find additional information.”

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Crime

House Judiciary Committee passes bail reform law named for Aniah Blanchard

Jessa Reid Bolling

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The House Judiciary Committee on Wednesday passed a bill to give judges more discretion in denying bail to people accused of committing violent crimes. 

The bill is named for Aniah Blanchard, a 19-year-old Alabama college student who was kidnapped and murdered last year. The man charged with her murder, Ibraheed Yazeed, was out on bond for charges including kidnapping and attempted murder at the time he was arrested in connection with Blanchard’s case. 

Currently, judges can only deny bond in capital murder cases. The bill would allow judges to deny bail in cases involving certain violent offenses. 

Blanchard’s father, Elijah Blanchard, stepmother, Yashiba Blanchard, and mother, Angela Harris, spoke to the House Judiciary Committee today in support of the law. 

“This would not have happened to our child if this bill would have been in place,” Harris said. “We can save a lot of lives by doing this because, because with repeat violent offenders, they are going to repeat.”

If the bill passes the full House and Senate, it will appear on the ballot in November.

 

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Courts

Legislation would limit death penalty appeals

Eddie Burkhalter

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Alabama Lt. Gov. Will Ainsworth on Tuesday discussed legislation that would reduce the length of some death penalty appeals. 

“Over the last 13 month, seven Alabama law enforcement officers have been killed in the line of duty by violent criminals, which is a new record and obviously not one the state of Alabama is proud of,” Ainsworth said during the press conference at the Alabama State House on Tuesday. “Back the blue has got to be more than just a slogan. Actions must follow words.” 

Ainsworth said that death row inmates in Alabama serve approximately 14 years on average before executions are carried out, and that there needs to be a “fair but expedited process in Alabama.” 

The proposed legislation would prevent the Alabama Supreme Court from hearing death row appeals in capital murder cases, and would stop all such appeals at the state Court of Criminal Appeals level. 

The bills would also require the criminal appeals court to expedite death row appeals when possible, and would reduce the amount of time a person has to appeal such convictions to the U.S. Supreme Court, Ainsworth said. 

“This legislation still affords a thorough appeals process, and all the protections guaranteed to them under the U.S. Constitution,” Ainsworth said. “It has been designed to provide both equal justice to inmates, and swifter justice to their victims.” 

State Sen. Cam Ward, R-Alabaster, a candidate for a seat on the state Supreme Court and sponsor of the senate’s version of the bill, said during the press conference that while overall crime rates have been declining, murders in Alabama have increased 25 percent over the last three years. 

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“I’ve always been an advocate for criminal justice reform, but let me tell you something, public safety is first and foremost, Ward said. “…I think this is a reasonable bill. It still provides for due process.” 

State Rep. Connie Row,R-Jasper, is sponsoring the bill in the House and said that as a former police chief she recognizes the value of the lives of those who serve the public. She also worked with crime victims in capital cases, she said, and in “capital cases it’s seeing if you can live long enough to see justice served in a death penalty case.” 

The bills also add language that would allow the Alabama Department of Corrections to conduct executions at facilities other than the Holman Correctional Facility near Atmore, where the state’s death chamber is currently located. 

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ADOC commissioner Jeff Dunn said in January that all death row inmates were being moved to Holman, while the majority of the prison’s areas for other incarcerated men was being closed due to concerns over maintenance problems in a tunnel that carries utilities to those portions of the prison. The death row section of Holman was to remain open, Dunn said. 

There are 175 people serving on the state’s death row, according to Alabama Department of Corrections statistics

Attempts Tuesday to reach staff at the Equal Justice Initiative for comment on the legislation were unsuccessful. The Montgomery legal aid nonprofit works to exonerate death row inmates, among its other initiatives. 

According to the Washington D.C.-based nonprofit Death Penalty Information Center 167 incarcerated people on death row in the U.S. have been exonerated and released from prison since 1973. Among those formerly on death row, six were scheduled to die by execution in Alabama. 

The last Alabama death row inmate exonerated was Anthony Hinton, freed in April 2015 after spending 30 years on death row for the 1985 murders of two fast food supervisors in Birmingham. 

The only evidence presented at Hinton’s trial was ballistics testing state prosecutors said proved the bullets that killed the two men came from a gun Hinton’s mother owned. 

Hinton lost appeals for a decade before the Equal Justice Initiative took up his case. Subsequent ballistics testing by the nonprofit in 2002 proved that the bullets weren’t a match for the firearm, but the state declined to re-examine the case. 

It took another 12 years for Hinton’s appeal to reach the U.S. Supreme Court, which reversed the lower court’s ruling and granted a new trial. 

The judge in his new trial dismissed the charges after the state’s prosecutors determined through additional testing that the bullets could not have come from Hinton’s mother’s gun. 

A 2009 study by professors at the University of Colorado and published in the Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology found that 88 percent of the leading criminologists in the U.S. polled did not believe the death penalty effectively deters crime.

Of the leading criminologists polled in the study, 87 percent said that speeding up executions would not add a deterrent effect on crime.

 

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Courts

Conservative Leadership Conference panel discusses prison reform

Brandon Moseley

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A panel discussed reforming Alabama’s prisons at the Conservative Leadership Conference in Florence Saturday.

State Senator Cam Ward, R-Alabaster, is Chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee and serves on the state prison task force. He is also a Republican candidate for Alabama Supreme Court, Place 1.

“Prison reform is a very vague term,” Ward said.

Ward warned that the state is under the threat of federal receivership of its prison and “It is going to cost money,” to satisfy the federal courts and the Department of Justice.

Recidivism is the rate that convicts re-offend once they are released. Decreasing the recidivism rate is a key component of addressing prison overcrowding.

Rich Anderson works with the Alabama Attorney General’s office.

“There are plenty of folks in prison that don’t want to do anything else,” Anderson said.

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“There is an old saying that you can lead a horse to water; but you can’t make him drink,” Anderson said. “I want to make sure that there is water to be had if these guys want to drink.”

Chris Connolly is the Lauderdale County District Attorney.

“If they are selling drugs in Alabama they need to go to prison,” Connolly said.

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“Taking away local discretion is a bad thing to me,” Connolly added on proposed sentencing law changes.

Mary Windom is the presiding Judge of the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals. Windom is running for re-election in the Republican primary for her Place 1 seat.

She thanked Ward for working with her on reducing the number of frivolous appeals of criminal verdicts. It took two years for the Legislature to understand.

“40 percent of them (inmates in Alabama’s prisons) have a mental health issue,” Ward said. 76 percent of them are there for violent crimes.

Anderson said that Alabama currently has 175 people on death row and the AG’s office only has eight lawyers in our division to handle all of those appeals from death row inmates.

Windom said that she and the other judges on the Court of Criminal Appeals have a large caseload.

“The five judges on the court of the criminal appeals handle all of those case plus every other criminal appeal,” Anderson explained. “One of the frustrations is how long death penalty cases take.”

Anderson said that many of those filings by defense teams in death penalty appeals cases are two hundred and three hundred pages long.

Connolly said, “David Riley executed a guy who was doing his job in a liquor store. Everybody knows he did it. If it (the death penalty) were real he would be dead.”

“It takes twenty years,” Connolly said.

“It is down to fourteen,” Ward answered.

“It needs to happen sooner,” Connolly replied. A guy like David Riley should already have been executed. “The problem is that the appeals never end. Justice delayed is justice denied.”

Rich Anderson blamed “Fake News” for creating a “false narrative” that there are lots of innocent people convicted of a crime. When there is a retrial and a guy like me can’t find the witness from twenty years ago that person is released and the defense claims he was exonerated and not guilty of the crime in the first place. That is not true.

“They are poisoning the public with that the prosecutor is not a minister of justice,” Anderson said. “That is a problem in our country this false narrative that we have all of these people. Exoneration is a false narrative.”

Ward said that exoneration is only a small part of criminal cases.

“I have been a defense attorney,” Connolly said. “I know how that game works.”

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Crime

House passes bill to make it a hate crime to attack law enforcement

Brandon Moseley

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The Alabama House of Representatives passed legislation Thursday that would add law enforcement officers to Alabama’s hate crimes statute. It now moves to the Senate.

The House passed HB59 by a margin of 92 to 0.

Under current law a crime become a hate crime if a person is victimized because of their race, creed, or disability. Murder to make money, in a crime of passion, or in the commission of a crime is murder. If a racist targets a person because of their race, then it become a hate crime and additional sentencing enhancements kick in under Alabama sentencing guidelines. House Bill 59 would make targeting a member of law enforcement because they are a member of law enforcement also a hate crime.

House Bill 59 is sponsored by State Representative Rex Reynolds (R-Huntsville).

Reynolds said that Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall supports the legislation.

“An attack on law enforcement in Alabama is an attack on all of her citizens—an attack on all Alabamians.…” Marshall said on social media. “If you take the life the life of a law enforcement officer, you will likely have forfeited your life as well.”

Marshall stated, “To the brave men and women who wear that badge, my heroes: Don’t give up. Don’t lose heart. Keep fighting the good fight, because your cause is righteous. Know that you have our support and our eternal gratitude.”

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Reynolds said that attacks on law enforcement, whether it is throwing water on them, assaults, or assassinations are up across the country. “We are not going to stand for it anymore.”

State Representative Mary Moore (D-Birmingham) said, “I support the bill, but there are too many guns on the street.”

Moore proposed banning high powered rifles and AR-15s. “We need to level the playing field for them.” :We stand ready to come up with a bipartisan bill to curb the number of guns on the street. We need men and women who are not afraid of the National Rifle Association.”

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“We have got to change how police officers are treated,” said Rep. Allen Treadaway (R-Morris). “I have been to too many police funerals.”

Treadaway is a police captain with Birmingham Police Department.

“The disrespect for police officers is unprecedented,” Treadaway said. “I have been a law enforcement officer for 30 years and I have not seen anything like it. We can’t hire police. We can’t retain police.”

Rep. Artis “A. J.” McCampbell (D-Livingston) said, “We have had eight police officers killed in the last 13 months.”

“How do we enhance the crimes when we already have a capital case for the murder of a police officer?” McCampbell asked.

Reynolds said that the sentence enhancements would apply when the police were targeted; but it is not a capital crime. 6,500 police officers were assaulted last year.

Reynolds said that harming an officer while attempting to escape or resisting arrest would not qualify as a hate crime. Attacking police because the motive is hate of the police would be a hate crime and then sentencing enhancements would apply.

Reynolds said that under current law if they are convicted of a capital crime of killing the police they get the death penalty.

Rep. John Rogers (D-Birmingham) said, “Is there a way to just give them the death penalty without going through all the appeals?”

Reynolds said, “I sure wish we could.”

Rogers said, “The death penalty should be automatic.”

Rogers daughter Mary Smith mas murdered.

“It has to be adjudicated in the court system before these enhancements would not come into play,” Reynolds said. “I hope there will come a day when a bill like this is not needed because people respect law enforcement.”

Rep. Arnold Mooney (R-Indian Springs) said that the police, sheriffs, and other law enforcement and first responders at the thin blue line protecting us and our families.

Mooney is a Republican candidate for U.S. Senate.

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