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Opinion | The “rule of law” has some exceptions

Josh Moon

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The State of Alabama murdered a man on Thursday night. 

Murder is what you call it when someone intentionally causes the death of another human for an unjustifiable reason. 

That fits with what Alabama did to Nathaniel Woods. 

Woods didn’t kill anyone. Everyone associated with the case agreed on that. And the amount of mental gymnastics you have to perform in order to apply Alabama’s “accomplice law” to Woods’ involvement in the shooting deaths of three police officers is Cirque du Soleil worthy. 

But it didn’t matter to the State of Alabama. Or Attorney General Steve Marshall. Or Gov. Kay Ivey. Or to the U.S Supreme Court. 

Everyone was cool with sticking the needle in Woods’ arm because “the rule of law” must be followed. 

It’s weird how the importance of the “rule of law” never comes into play when discussing ineffective counsel or improper jury instructions or a judge who improperly allows the victims’ widows to recommend sentences to the jury — all of which, and more, happened in Woods’ case — but “rule of law” becomes the absolute most important thing when it’s time to carry out the execution in a flawed case. 

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I mean, if the rule of law is actually that important to you, maybe start tidying up the processes that have repeatedly led to innocent men landing on Alabama’s death row, and some of them winding up dead. 

If you need examples of this happening, let me point you to the movies made about those cases. All of them. 

If the rule of law matters to anyone, here’s what it did to Nathaniel Woods: it failed him in the biggest way. 

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To understand how, you have to know the story of Woods’ arrest, so here’s the quick version. He was at a home allegedly known as a crack house, and Birmingham police were at the door to serve a warrant. These cops apparently knew Woods, and he apparently knew them. They argued, and Woods said he didn’t believe he had a warrant and refused to come out. 

So, the cops went in. According to court records from the prosecutors, Woods almost immediately surrendered and asked not to be maced. 

Not understanding what was happening, Woods’ alleged accomplice, Kerry Spencer, who was asleep in a back room when cops broke through the door to arrest Woods, picked up an assault rifle and came out firing. He killed three of the cops and injured a fourth. 

This is why Nathaniel Woods was murdered by Alabama on Thursday. 

For another man’s crimes. 

Oh, there was another explanation — one pushed by the prosecutors and by Marshall and Ivey the last two days — that makes so little sense it’s hard to believe grownups are repeating it. 

In order to charge Woods under Alabama’s accomplice law, which allows the state to hold people responsible for crimes they cause even if they’re not the person who commits the act, the state had to show that Woods intentionally lured the officers into the home knowing they would be shot. 

To prove this, the state presented evidence that Woods and Spencer had argued with two of the officers earlier in the day, and that Woods had allegedly told one officer that if he would “take off that badge,” Woods would “(mess) him up.” There were allegedly other threats made back and forth. And then everyone went on their way. 

But according to the prosecutors — and wrap your head around this — Woods knew they would be back with a warrant later and set up a trap to murder them. 

That’s the only way the accomplice statute can be applied here. Woods had to know the shooting was going to occur and he had to cause it to happen, which means he had to anticipate the police would come back looking for him and he had to arrange for Spencer to shoot them (or at least know that Spencer would shoot them). 

For the record, Spencer finds that just as silly as you. He has been consistent in his testimony that Woods had no idea that he was going to shoot the officers and that Woods played no role in the shooting. 

Didn’t matter. Woods was still arrested and charged, and that was the first failure. 

He received a lawyer who had no experience with capital murder cases and advised his client that a plea deal offered by the state for 20-25 years — Marshall inexplicably denied in a letter on Wednesday that a deal was offered, despite this plea deal being mentioned numerous times in court filings — shouldn’t be taken because the state had to prove that he participated in the crime. This was bad advice. 

So, Woods was failed again. 

A number of appeals deadlines were missed — failed again — and Woods’ ever-changing attorneys — failed again — attempted to file late appeals for rehearings. The criminal appeals court and Alabama Supreme Court refused to hear those late appeals, which argued ineffective counsel, among other things — and he was failed again. 

And, of course, you know the failures that happened on Thursday night, when all of the people who could have stopped this travesty instead hid behind a “rule of law” excuse to do nothing. To keep up the appearances of tough-on-crime politicians. To tout their “law and order” record. 

Which is odd, because you’d think stopping improper executions would be part of law and order.

 

Josh Moon is an investigative reporter and featured columnist at the Alabama Political Reporter with years of political reporting experience in Alabama. You can email him at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter.

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Judge dismisses former Drummond exec’s lawsuit against Balch and Bingham

Josh Moon

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(STOCK PHOTO)

A Jefferson County Circuit Court judge has dismissed a lawsuit against the Balch & Bingham law firm filed by a former coal executive who claimed the law firm’s poor legal advice resulted in his conviction on federal bribery charges. 

Judge Tamara Harris Johnson ruled that the statute of limitations had expired on former Drummond Coal vice president David Roberson’s $50 million lawsuit against Balch and his former employer, Drummond.

The suit claimed that Balch attorneys, primarily Joel Gilbert, who was also convicted of federal bribery charges, assured Roberson that a plan to recruit then-State Rep. Oliver Robinson to use his office to thwart efforts by the EPA to clean up toxic soil in the 35th Avenue Superfund site in North Birmingham was legal.

Johnson’s ruling dismissing the lawsuit against Balch didn’t dispute Roberson’s claims but said that under the Alabama Legal Service Liability Action statute, Roberson should have filed his claim no later than November 2018. He filed it in March 2019. 

“All claims against defendant Balch & Bingham are barred by the statute of limitations,” Johnson wrote. 

Johnson said a motion to dismiss filed by Drummond will be addressed separately at a later date. 

Roberson and Gilbert were the only two executives found guilty by a jury in October 2018 in the well-publicized federal case that saw Robinson plead guilty and go to prison for accepting bribes. 

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Roberson maintained his innocence throughout, saying he relied on the advice and counsel of Gilbert and others at Balch. During the sentencing phase, U.S. District Court Judge Abdul Kallon said he was moved by Roberson’s history and the character witnesses who testified on his behalf, and the judge said he found Roberson to be less culpable than Gilbert because he relied on Gilbert’s legal advice. 

Gilbert was sentenced to five years in federal prison. Robinson was sentenced to two and a half years.

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Trial begins in lawsuit challenging state’s COVID-19 election rules

Micah Danney

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(ALABAMAVOTES.GOV/APR GRAPHIC)

A virtual trial opened on Tuesday in a lawsuit charging that Alabama’s requirements of witnesses and photo ID for absentee ballots and a “de facto ban” on curbside voting are unconstitutional.

The suit, People First v. Merrill, was filed on May 1 by the Southern Poverty Law Center, the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, the Alabama Disabilities Advocacy Program and the American Civil Liberties Union against Secretary of State John Merrill.

Merrill has touted the rules for the election in November as guaranteeing “a higher degree of credibility than ever before in the history of the state.”

The SPLC said that while Merrill did permit any eligible voter to apply for an absentee ballot by claiming “physical illness or infirmity,” the witness and ID absentee requirements should be waived and the curbside voting ban lifted because they present unfair obstacles to plaintiffs’ ability to vote.

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Federal court orders outside monitoring of Alabama prisons’ mental health care

Josh Moon

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(STOCK PHOTO)

A federal judge has ordered external monitoring of mental health care in Alabama’s prisons, noting a long and disturbing history of inadequate care and refusal by the state to willingly improve conditions.

In his 124-page order, U.S. District Court Judge Myron Thompson noted decades of insufficient care and lawsuits and established a hybrid monitoring plan that will see an external monitoring team train Alabama Department of Corrections’ staff.

“ADOC’s long history of repeated litigation regarding the inadequacy of its mental-health care is independent evidence of its inability to sustain improvements without the type of oversight ordered today,” Thompson wrote in the order. “This history serves as evidence of why court monitoring is necessary.”

The order is part of the long-running Braggs v. Dunn litigation, filed by the Southern Poverty Law Center, Alabama Disabilities Advocacy Program, Baker Donelson and the Dagney Johnson Law Group, that has resulted in numerous changes and harsh rebukes from Thompson over ADOC’s consistently poor mental health care of prisoners. At one point, Thompson labeled ADOC’s mental health care as “horrendously inadequate.”

That inadequate care has resulted in Alabama having one of the highest rates of inmate suicides in the nation.

“People in Alabama prisons have been languishing for far too long at the hands of state officials,” said Ebony Howard, senior supervising attorney for Criminal Justice Reform at the SPLC. “Despite historical intervention and court monitoring, ADOC has failed to permanently uphold its obligation to protect the people incarcerated in Alabama prisons. The court’s order requiring long-term external and internal compliance monitoring will hopefully ensure that people with mental health needs will finally receive the humane and just treatment they deserve.”

The parties will be back in court on Sept. 14 in a hearing to determine if Thompson’s order falls within the guidelines of the new Prison Litigation Reform Act, which limits the amount of change that can be imposed on a prison system by the courts.

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Rep. Mo Brooks deposed in Census lawsuit

Brandon Moseley

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Congressman Mo Brooks

Congressman Mo Brooks, R-Alabama, was deposed Thursday in a federal lawsuit over the Census. The deposition in the suit — State of Alabama & Mo Brooks v. U.S. Census Bureau & U.S. Department of Commerce — was taken virtually in Brooks’s district office.

“I was deposed yesterday in my ongoing legal battle against illegal alien counts determining how many Congressmen and presidential electoral college votes each state has,” Brooks said. “The attorneys who deposed me represented various illegal alien sanctuary parts of the country that hope to gain political power at the expense of Alabama and other law-abiding states. I steadfastly defended the Constitutional rights of Alabamians in the face of those who seek to undermine the rights of American citizens in favor of illegal aliens. The conclusion of this deposition makes us one step closer to a final judgement in this important case.”

In May 2018, Brooks and Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall, on the state of Alabama’s behalf, sued in an attempt to force the U.S. Census Bureau and federal government to not include illegal immigrants in the apportionment of Congressional seats and Electoral College votes.

Brooks and Marshall contend that the 14th Amendment’s equal protection clause and the “one man-one vote” principle are being violated when non-citizens are used to determine apportionment and representation in the Congress.

President Donald Trump has publicly agreed with Marshall and Brooks. In July, he highlighted the importance of the case when he signed an executive order that excludes illegal immigrants from the part of the 2020 Census count that determines America’s representation in Congress.

The president’s executive order states: “The Constitution does not specifically define which persons must be included in the apportionment base. Although the Constitution requires the ‘persons in each State, excluding Indians not taxed,’ to be enumerated in the census, that requirement has never been understood to include in the apportionment base every individual physically present within a State’s boundaries at the time of the census. Instead, the term ‘persons in each State’ has been interpreted to mean that only the ‘inhabitants’ of each State should be included.”

“Determining which persons should be considered ‘inhabitants’ for the purpose of apportionment requires the exercise of judgment,” the order continues. “For example, aliens who are only temporarily in the United States, such as for business or tourism, and certain foreign diplomatic personnel are ‘persons’ who have been excluded from the apportionment base in past censuses. Conversely, the Constitution also has never been understood to exclude every person who is not physically ‘in’ a State at the time of the census. For example, overseas Federal personnel have, at various times, been included in and excluded from the populations of the States in which they maintained their homes of record. The discretion delegated to the executive branch to determine who qualifies as an ‘inhabitant’ includes authority to exclude from the apportionment base aliens who are not in a lawful immigration status.”

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“For the purpose of the reapportionment of Representatives following the 2020 census, it is the policy of the United States to exclude from the apportionment base aliens who are not in a lawful immigration status under the Immigration and Nationality Act, as amended (8 U.S.C. 1101 et seq.), to the maximum extent feasible and consistent with the discretion delegated to the executive branch,” Trump’s executive order continued. “Excluding these illegal aliens from the apportionment base is more consonant with the principles of representative democracy underpinning our system of Government.”

While Alabama has experienced some population growth in the last decade, it has not attracted nearly as many immigrants, both documented and undocumented, as states like Florida, California and Texas, thus not the same rate of population growth.

If the estimated 20 million people living in the U.S. illegally are counted in apportionment just like American citizens, Alabama is likely to lose representation in the U.S. House of Representatives.

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It’s also likely that Alabama could lose a seat regardless. Alabamians have done a lackluster job of filling out the 2020 census. As a result, it now appears highly likely, particularly if Brooks and the state of Alabama lose this lawsuit, that Alabama will lose one, and possibly two, of its seven Congressional seats beginning in the 2022 election.

Brooks represents the 5th Congressional District.

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