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In the crosshairs of conscience: John Kitzhaber's death penalty reckoning

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To cope with his dread, John Kitzhaber opened his leather-bound journal and began to write.
It was a little past 9 on the morning of Nov. 22, 2011. Gary Haugen had dropped his appeals. A Marion County judge had signed the murderer's death warrant, leaving Kitzhaber, a former emergency room doctor, to decide Haugen's fate. The 49-year-old would soon die by lethal injection if the governor didn't intervene.
Kitzhaber was exhausted, having been unable to sleep the night before, but he needed to call the families of Haugen's victims.
"I know my decision will delay the closure they need and deserve," he wrote.
The son of University of Oregon English professors, Kitzhaber began writing each day in his journal in the early 1970s. The practice helped him organize his thoughts and, on that particular morning, gather his courage.
Kitzhaber first dialed the widow of David Polin, an inmate Haugen beat and stabbed to death in 2003 while already serving a life sentence fo…

U.S. Supreme Court won't hear inmate's claim that Alabama's death sentence law is unconstitutional

The U.S. Supreme Court today refused to review the case of an Alabama death row inmate who challenged the constitutionality of the state's death sentencing scheme in the wake of the court's ruling in January on a Florida case.

Without issuing an opinion the U.S. Supreme Court denied a request by attorneys for Clayton Shanklin to review his challenge based on their ruling in Hurst v. Florida.

It was the 1st Alabama death penalty appeal to reach the Supreme Court on this issue since Hurst was decided on Jan. 12, according to a statement from Alabama Attorney General Luther Strange. Alabama death row inmate Christopher Brooks had tried to use the Florida decision, among other arguments, to hold off his Jan. 21 execution. The U.S. Supreme Court, however, denied Brooks' appeals and he was executed.

Attorney General Luther Strange said that the Supreme Court's decision to deny Clayton Shanklin's request, "establishes, yet again, that Alabama capital sentencing system is constitutional."

"As I have previously explained, the Court's decision about Florida law in Hurst has no bearing on the constitutionality of Alabama's materially different capital sentencing system," Strange stated in his statement. "It is time for criminal defense lawyers to stop making specious arguments and for public officials to recognize that Alabama's capital sentencing is constitutional under current U.S. Supreme Court precedent."

Alabama's sentencing scheme in death penalty cases is the same as Florida's, which was ruled unconstitutional last month by the U.S. Supreme Court, a number of Alabama defense lawyers are arguing to get death sentences barred in their cases.

The ink was hardly dry on the U.S. Supreme Court's Jan. 12 ruling in Hurst v. Florida before lawyers around Alabama began filing motions seeking to bar the death penalty for their clients facing capital murder charges because of the similarities between the 2 states' capital punishment sentencing laws.

Judges around the state have mostly denied the arguments of those defense lawyers. A few judges reserved rulings and only one, Jefferson County Circuit Judge Tracie Todd, has ruled that Alabama's death sentencing scheme is unconstitutional.

Todd had heard arguments from lawyers for capital murder defendants Benjamin Acton, Terrell McMullin, Stanley Chatman, and Kenneth Billups.

Strange announced March 10 that his office had filed a petition for a writ of mandamus asking the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals to order Todd to vacate her March 3 order.

Attorney General Luther Strange states the filing asserts the lower trial court has no power to prevent the state from seeking the death penalty.

Strange said Florida's sentencing scheme is different.

"In the Florida case, the holding is that a jury must find the aggravating factor in order to make someone eligible for the death penalty," according to Strange's statement. "Alabama's system already requires the jury to do just that. The jury must unanimously find an aggravating factor at either the guilt or sentencing phase - such as when the murder was committed during a robbery, a rape, or a kidnapping."

Strange and local district attorneys have also noted previously that the U.S. Supreme Court specifically upheld Alabama's current system as constitutional in 1995. But a few current U.S. Supreme Court justices have stated in opinions that it might be time for the court to reconsider.

Much of the criticism of Alabama's death sentencing scheme centers on a judge's ability to override jury recommendations for either death or life without the possibility of parole. The judges are elected, often on a platform of being tough on crime, critics say. Alabama, Florida and Delaware are the only states with such override laws, but judges in Alabama are the only ones in more than 16 years who have overridden jury recommendations of life without parole and imposed death penalties.

Shanklin was convicted of capital murder and attempted murder, which he committed during a home-invasion robbery in 2009 in Cordova. A jury in Walker County Circuit Court recommended that Shanklin be sentenced to life-without-parole. But the judge sentenced Shanklin to death because of his long criminal history and the nature and circumstances of his crime, according to the attorney general.

Shanklin, who is now on death row at Holman Correctional Facility, was convicted of 1 count of capital murder for killing Michael Crumpton during the course of a 1st-degree robbery, a 2nd count of capital murder for killing Crumpton during the course of a 1st-degree burglary, and one count of attempted murder in the shooting of Crumpton's wife on Oct. 11, 2009.

According to court records Shanklin's girlfriend had gone into the Crumpton's apartment to buy marijuana while Shanklin waited in the car. Later Shanklin and his cousin, Kevin Shanklin, returned to the apartment to rob the Crumptons.

Kevin Shanklin pleaded guilty and was sentenced to life in prison, plus 10 years.

Source: al.com, March 21, 2016

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