Walker County District Attorney Bill Adair said he thought the measure, which is projected to cut the time required for appeals in half, was long overdue.
“I wish we could get it in place as quickly as possible,” Adair said.
Under the current system, when a defendant is found guilty and sentenced to death, the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals automatically hears an appeal. The inmate can then appeal to the Alabama Supreme Court and then the United States Supreme Court, who can choose to hear the case or not.
If those courts uphold the sentence or refuse to hear the case, the appellant can begin the Rule 32 appeals to the Alabama Circuit Court, the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals, the Alabama Supreme Court and then the United States Supreme Court. These appeals do not allow the inmate to question the verdict or sentence, but they can dispute issues from the trial, such as whether they had adequate, competent council.
After that, the filings for federal habeas corpus to the United States District Court, Federal Circuit Court (11th Circuit) and the United States Supreme Court begin. These appeals are subject to strict time requirements. These cases deal with accusations that the verdict and/or sentence violate the constitutional rights of the petitioner.
Once those appeals have been exhausted, the death sentence can be changed only by executive order or pardon issued by the governor or President.
The new legislation would streamline the appeals process so direct appeals of trial issues and Rule 32 appeals would proceed at the same time. Currently, Rule 32 appeals don’t begin until after those first direct appeals have been exhausted.
Adair said the important thing here is that it would expedite justice, without reducing the appeals to ensure the case was handled appropriately.
“It makes these things speed up for these cases,” Adair explained. “But, the defendant does not lose any of their rights or appeals.”
Robert Broussard, Madison County’s District Attorney, has been the driving force behind the new push. He estimated that the time for the appeals process would be reduced to close to ten years. He said it was similar to what Texas has done.
He told al.com that it constituted cruel and unusual punishment for the victim’s families, who are forced to relive the pain of the loss over and over with each appeal.
“The thing that’s lost in all these occasions, is the victim’s families,” Adair said, reinforcing that idea.
That is certainly the case with the Walker County inmate who has been on death row the longest. Gregory Hunt was moved to death row at Holman Prison in 1990 for the brutal murder of Karen Lane in Cordova.
Adair said the victim’s mother has died since Hunt was sentenced and her father is in failing health. Adair said her father has expressed fear that he may not live long enough to see justice for his daughter.
“What do you say to that? It’s just heartbreaking,” Adair said. “He’s a wonderful man who has gone through terrible loss and needs it to be concluded before he passes away. It is inconceivable that justice has still not been served for this victim.”
Hunt had been dating Lane for a month or so when he became enraged, burned her home down and then tracked her to a friend’s apartment where Lane was sexually assaulted and then killed by an extended, vicious beating. Numerous appeals in the case have been denied, the most recent was the writ of centiorari by the Supreme Court of the United States last year.
James Allen Johnson, who has been on death row at Donaldson Prison since 1999, was convicted in the shooting death of Mary Charlene “Sissy” Lawson during the course of a robbery on Aug. 5, 1995.
A co-defendant testified against Johnson and identified him as the trigger man. The robbery netted approximately $447 for the two robbers.
Shonda Johnson, who was sentenced to death in January of 2000 for her part in the murder of her third husband. Johnson, who also pleaded guilty to bigamy, was married to three men at once and, when one filed an official, legal complaint of bigamy against her, she had the fifth husband shoot him. Since her victim had been a grand jury witness in the case against her, the case was eligible for the death penalty.
Her co-conspirator then testified against her in order to avoid the death penalty himself. The bizarre case made international headlines and garnered a death sentence for Johnson, making her just one four women currently on death row.
Shonda Johnson’s story grabbed headlines again in 2012 when her fifth husband and trigger man, Timothy Richards, escaped from an Alabama prison work farm. He was recaptured several days later.
Michael Wayne Eggers was convicted in the death of Bennie Francis Murray. The woman, who was his boss, was giving Eggers a ride to retrieve his disabled vehicle. Eggers said she stopped the vehicle and said she was unwilling to go any farther. Eggers then beat her severely several times, then dumped her body in the woods with a tree branch over her throat. He stole her vehicle and wallet. Once arrested, he led authorities to her body in the woods.
Christopher Shane Hyde was sentenced to death in 2005 for the 2003 shooting deaths of June Williams, Randle Lane and the Rev. Ricky Peterson inside Bell Funeral Home in Sumiton.
Hyde took money from the victims and stole Peterson’s truck after he shot the three execution-style.
He was arrested in Atlanta after he took a bus there, presumably to avoid arrest. The murders occurred just months after Hyde was released from a Florida prison for attempted murder and other charges.
The most recent Walker County resident sentenced to death in Alabama is Clayton Antwain Shanklin, who was sent to death row in 2012 after he was convicted of shooting Michael Crumpton in the back four times at his home in Cordova during a robbery.
Crumpton’s wife, Ashley, was also shot in the leg during the incident, and their two, small children were inside the home when the incident happened.
Adair has tried six of the seven Walker County residents sentenced to death since the death penalty was reinstated. Rayford Hagood, another Walker County man sentenced to death, died on death row while awaiting execution. He was sentenced to death for the 1994 murder of Jessie “Buddy” Price, whose wife he was involved with. Hagood and Price’s wife beat him, taped him up with duct tape and threw him in the Warrior River, where he drowned. The wife pleaded guilty to avoid the death penalty.
There are currently 190 inmates on Alabama’s Death Row, 95 black males, 91 white males, one black female and three white females.
Arthur Lee Giles has been on death row for 34 years, making him the longest resident.
The average stay on death row is 13 years, according to the Alabama Department of Corrections.