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'Express lane to death': Texas seeks approval to speed up death penalty appeals, execute more quickly

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Texas is seeking to speed up executions with a renewed request to opt-in to a federal law that would shorten the legal process and limit appeals options for death-sentenced prisoners.
Defense attorneys worry it would lead to the execution of innocent people and - if it's applied retroactively, as Texas is requesting - it could potentially end ongoing appeals for a number of death row prisoners and make them eligible for execution dates.
"Opt-in would speed up the death penalty treadmill exponentially," said Kathryn Kase, an longtime defense attorney and former executive director of Texas Defender Services.
But a state attorney general spokeswoman framed the request to the Justice Department as a necessary way to avoid "stressful delays" and cut down on the "excessive costs" of lengthy federal court proceedings.
Robbie Kaplan, co-founder of the #TimesUp movement, says sweeping changes to laws in recent years have dissuaded attorneys from taking on har…

What's next for Alabama death row inmate Vernon Madison after execution was stayed?

More than 2 hours after Vernon Madison was scheduled to be put to death Thursday by the state of Alabama, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a ruling upholding a lower court's stay of execution.

Madison's attorneys from the Montgomery-based nonprofit Equal Justice Initiative had been seeking a stay from state and federal courts since the execution date was set in March.

For weeks, their requests had been denied until a federal appellate court granted their petition less than eight hours before Madison was to be put to death.

Madison, one of Alabama's longest-serving death row inmates, was convicted in the April 1985 slaying of Mobile police Cpl. Julius Schulte.

His was convicted and sentenced to death in both 1985 and 1990, but both times an appellate court sent the case back, 1st for a violation involving race-based jury selection and then based on improper testimony from an expert witness for the prosecution.

In 1994, he was tried for a 3rd and final time and convicted. The jury recommended a life sentence, but the judge overrode the recommendation and sentenced him to death.

This week - 31 years after his arrest - officials with the Alabama Department of Corrections had everything in place for Madison's execution to go forward.

He had been moved into an isolation cell near the execution site 48 hours before it was set to take place, per ADOC protocol. He was kept abreast of Thursday's developments throughout the day, and 2 guards remained with him at all times.

After the stay of execution was upheld, he remained in the isolation cell overnight before being moved back into his death row cell Friday.

So what happens next, now that Madison has returned to death row yet again?

The appeal that prompted the stay

Madison has claimed that he is mentally incompetent to be executed.

On Wednesday, EJI attorneys filed a petition for a stay and a request for oral argument before the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals. The appellate court granted that request Thursday morning.

The attorney general's office sought to overturn the decision by filing a petition before the U.S. Supreme Court. They argued that the appellate court read into the state court order legal conclusions that do not exist and that the issue of Madison's competency had been "clearly and plainly foreclosed."

In their response, EJI attorneys asked the Supreme Court to deny the request and leave the stay in place, saying Madison's competency claim has not been reviewed on appeal in either state or federal court.

In a 4-4 decision released at 8:22 p.m. Thursday, the Supreme Court denied the request to vacate the stay of execution. The Attorney General's Office declined to comment.

"We are relieved that important questions surrounding the propriety and constitutionality of Mr. Madison's execution will be reviewed," EJI founder and executive director Bryan Stevenson said Thursday night.

The case will now be taken up before the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals.

Madison's attorneys must file briefs by May 27, and the attorney general's office must respond by June 10. Madison's attorneys then will have until June 17 to file a reply.

Oral argument will take place in Atlanta on June 23, with each side allowed 30 minutes.

An alternative appeal cites judicial override

In January, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Hurst v. Florida that Florida's scheme allowing judges to override a jury's sentencing recommendation in death penalty cases was unconstitutional.

Alabama has a similar sentencing scheme, though the attorney general's office has noted that it was upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1995.

In another ruling issued May 2, the U.S. Supreme Court granted review of the case of Alabama Death Row inmate Bart Johnson. It was the 1st Alabama case challenging the state's capital murder sentencing scheme to be reviewed by the U.S. Supreme Court since Hurst was decided.

Madison's attorneys argue that the 2 rulings have "raised fundamental questions about the constitutionality of the use of judicial override in Alabama."

This week, they asked the Alabama Supreme Court to grant a stay so that Madison could litigate his challenge to the state's death penalty sentencing scheme and judicial override system. In an order issued Wednesday, the court unanimously denied the request.

On Thursday they appealed that decision to the U.S. Supreme Court, filing a motion for a stay of execution based on the constitutionality of judicial override.

"Vernon Madison was given a life sentence by a Mobile County jury made up of jurors who believe in the death penalty," Stevenson said. "In most Alabama courtrooms, Mr. Madison would have never been sentenced to death. Judicial override in Alabama should be eliminated."

Future executions in Alabama?

Madison's execution was the only one scheduled in Alabama.

In February, the Attorney General's Office requested that the Alabama Supreme Court set execution dates for Madison and 2 other inmates: Robert Bryant Melson, convicted in Etowah County, and Ronald Bert Smith, convicted in Madison County.

All 3 inmates are currently on death row at Holman Correctional Facility near Atmore.

No other planned execution dates have been released.

John Palombi, Assistant Federal Defender for the Middle District of Alabama, represents Melson and Smith. He told AL.com in March that he had received the motions to set execution dates and planned to respond, also citing issues with the state's death penalty sentencing.

"We believe that these motions are premature in light of the questionable constitutionality of Alabama's death sentencing scheme," he said.

Source: al.com, May 13, 2016

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