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Trial by Fire - Did Texas execute an innocent man?

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The fire moved quickly through the house, a one-story wood-frame structure in a working-class neighborhood of Corsicana, in northeast Texas. Flames spread along the walls, bursting through doorways, blistering paint and tiles and furniture. Smoke pressed against the ceiling, then banked downward, seeping into each room and through crevices in the windows, staining the morning sky.
Buffie Barbee, who was eleven years old and lived two houses down, was playing in her back yard when she smelled the smoke. She ran inside and told her mother, Diane, and they hurried up the street; that’s when they saw the smoldering house and Cameron Todd Willingham standing on the front porch, wearing only a pair of jeans, his chest blackened with soot, his hair and eyelids singed. He was screaming, “My babies are burning up!” His children—Karmon and Kameron, who were one-year-old twin girls, and two-year-old Amber—were trapped inside.
Willingham told the Barbees to call the Fire Department, and while Dia…

Alabama Supreme Court rejects bid to have state's death penalty ruled unconstitutional

John Clayton Owens
John Clayton Owens
The Alabama Supreme Court has rejected a request by John Clayton Owens' lawyers to rule the state's death penalty system unconstitutional.

The court denied the request without comment this afternoon.

Attorneys Brian Clark and Ron Smith filed the petition last month on the eve of Owens' capital murder trial. Owens was found guilty of capital murder in the August 2011 death of 91-year-old Doris Richardson on Bide-a-wee Drive near Five Points in Huntsville.

The jury was then asked to decide on whether to recommend the death penalty or life without parole. The jury voted 10-2 in favor of the life without parole, after just 35 minutes of deliberation. The verdict took about 8 hours.

Under Alabama law, the judge has the final say and can override the jury recommendation and sentence Owens to death.

But that system, where the judge, not the jury, has the final say is unconstitutional, Owens' lawyers argued. They cited the U.S. Supreme Court's January decision in Hurst vs. Florida, which struck down the Florida death penalty system.

Alabama's system is very similar to Florida's, but the Alabama Attorney General's office has said there is a key difference that makes it constitutional. The U.S. Supreme Court said the problem is the jury is not the final finder of fact in Florida in determining sentencing, since the judge holds a separate evidentiary hearing.

Alabama's judges also do fact-finding before capital murder sentencing, but the Attorney General's office has said that as long as the jury has found 1 aggravator - evidence that shows the defendant deserves the death penalty - the law is constitutional.

The capital murder charge against Owens is that he burglarized Richardson's home along with strangling her. In Alabama, burglary is 1 of the aggravators that a jury can find as a basis for recommending a death sentence.

In rejecting the defense's request to throw out the death penalty law in Owens' trials, Madison County Circuit Judge Alison Austin cited the fact that the charge contained an aggravator, meaning they found an element that could justify a death sentence.

The defense has also argued that Alabama's system has jurors weigh the aggravators and mitigators - any fact that would make life in prison, rather than death, the appropriate sentence - in reaching their recommendation. The defense contends that if the jury itself doesn't find sufficient weight to recommend a death sentence, under the Hurst ruling, the judge cannot override the decision.

Owens sentencing is set for April 20.

Source: WHNT news, March 3, 2016


Judge rules AL's death penalty scheme unconstitutional

JEFFERSON COUNTY, AL (WBRC) - A Jefferson County circuit judge has ruled Alabama's death penalty scheme unconstitutional in a landmark decision for the state.

Four Jefferson County capital murder defendants asked Judge Tracie Todd to rule Alabama’s death penalty unconstitutional on Thursday. 

Florida and Alabama were the only two states in the nation where a judge could override a jury's recommendation and sentence someone to death. 

In January, the Supreme Court struck down Florida's law as unconstitutional in their decision in the Hurst vs. Florida case.

Now, defense attorneys in Alabama are filing motions and using that example to try to make that happen here.

There are four big cases in the Montgomery area where a judge overrode a jury’s recommendation and imposed the death penalty.

In Montgomery County, Mario Woodward was convicted of killing MPD Officer Keith Houts in 2006. The jury recommended life in prison, but the judge overrode that recommendation and sentenced Woodward to death

In Crenshaw County, Wesley Harris was convicted of killing six members of his girlfriend's family in 2002: a mom, dad, grandmother and three children. All were shot to death. The jury recommended life in prison without parole but the judge sentenced Harris to die by lethal injection. 

In Lee County, Courtney Lockhart was convicted of killing Auburn University student Lauren Burk. The jury recommended life in prison without parole, but Judge Jacob Walker overrode and sentenced Lockhart to death. Judge Walker said he based the decision on evidence that was never brought before the jury.

In Elmore County, Calvin McMillan was convicted in the shooting death of Bryan Martin. It happened in 2007 in the Millbrook Walmart parking lot so McMillan could steal his truck. In this case, the jury recommended life without parole, but the judge overrode and sentenced McMillian to death.

Source: WBRC, March 3, 2016

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