Lawmakers consider bill to speed death penalty appeals
by Tim Lockette
tlockette@annistonstar.com
Jan 21, 2014 | 2677 views |  0 comments | 54 54 recommendations | email to a friend | print
MONTGOMERY — Sixteen years after her brother-in-law Brian was murdered, Jacksonville resident Sherrie Carter is still attending appeals hearings on the men who were sentenced to death for the crime.

"It took a matter of two hours for them to kill, but it's taken all this time for justice to be served," Carter said.

Carter was one of several people who traveled to Montgomery Tuesday to testify at a hearing on a new bill, supported by Alabama's attorney general, that would speed the appeals process in death penalty cases — and lead to quicker executions for inmates whose appeals fail.

Death row inmates currently have multiple paths to appeal their convictions before execution. One of those paths is known as the "Rule 32" process, in which a conviction can be overturned because the defendant didn't have adequate representation.

The bill, sponsored by Sen. Bill Holtzclaw, R-Madison, in the House and Rep. Lynn Greer, R-Rogersville, would require inmates to start their Rule 32 process within six months of a conviction, meaning it would run concurrently with other appeals.

The bill couldn't come soon enough for Carter, whose brother-in-law was one of the people killed in a 1996 attack in Huntsville known locally as the "cellphone murders." Brian Carter was one of four people shot dead after a brutal beating by three men who were upset over a stolen cell phone. Three other victims of the attack survived. Two of the men convicted in the attack were sentenced to death.

One of those men had an appeal hearing just last month. Sherrie Carter and other family members attended. They've been doing it for years, Carter said. Every time, she said, it’s traumatizing.

"We have to go through this over and over, just so the defendant can try and grasp at a thread," she said.

Defense attorneys, however, say that thread can be a lifeline for the innocent. Birmingham lawyer Richard Jaffe told lawmakers he'd had a client who spent 19 years on death row before being exonerated — a client who would have died if the appeals process were shorter.

Jaffe also predicted the shorter appeals process would actually cost the state more money, by requiring the state to hire more lawyers to work the appeals. Jaffe also said the process in Alabama seems to already run more efficiently than in most states.

"We execute more people per capita than Texas," he said. "We're very efficient at killing."

Walker County District Attorney Bill Adair said Jaffe's cost estimates were wrong. The state would have to pay for the appeals, Adair said, even if they didn't run concurrently.

"These costs he talks about, they're already there," Adair said. "It's a red herring."

Adair said some inmates are cleared, after long periods in prison, simply because the evidence is old.

"Let's exonerate them based on the truth," he said. "Not because it's been 25 years and all the witnesses are dead."

Critics of the bill said an expedited appeals process wouldn't pass muster with courts, and would increase the risk of mistakes.

"If a wrong person is executed, there is no remedy," said defense lawyer William Clark.

Clark said the bill was moving too fast through the Legislature, and needed more review. Lawmakers had no plan to vote on the bill Tuesday, but it is one of the first bills to come up for a public hearing in committee in 2014.

The Legislature has been working an expedited schedule this year, hoping to quickly finish its 30 days of required meetings and get back on the campaign trail. Tuesday's hearing was cut off after only 30 minutes so committee members could join the full session of the House. Another hearing is scheduled for today.

Sherrie Carter said she'd be willing to speak again if need be. Still, she said, 16 years of talking about Brian Carter's murder has taken its toll.

"After the first three appeals, I felt like my brother-in-law became just a number," she said.

Capitol & statewide correspondent Tim Lockette: 256-294-4193. On Twitter @TLockette_Star.

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