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Capital Punishment in the United States Explained

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In our Explainer series, Fair Punishment Project lawyers help unpackage some of the most complicated issues in the criminal justice system. We break down the problems behind the headlines - like bail, civil asset forfeiture, or the Brady doctrine - so that everyone can understand them. Wherever possible, we try to utilize the stories of those affected by the criminal justice system to show how these laws and principles should work, and how they often fail. We will update our Explainers monthly to keep them current. Read our updated explainer here.
To beat the clock on the expiration of its lethal injection drug supply, this past April, Arkansas tried to execute 8 men over 1 days. The stories told in frantic legal filings and clemency petitions revealed a deeply disturbing picture. Ledell Lee may have had an intellectual disability that rendered him constitutionally ineligible for the death penalty, but he had a spate of bad lawyers who failed to timely present evidence of this claim -…

Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey signs bill to shorten time of death penalty appeals

Gov. Kay Ivey Friday signed a bill that would shorten the death penalty appeals process in Alabama.

Ivey signed the legislation early Friday afternoon, according to her office. Both supporters and opponents of the bill agreed that it would cut the time in the death penalty appeals process.

But proponents said it would ensure the swifter enactment of justice, while opponents said it would make it more likely Alabama would execute innocent people.

The signing came less than 24 hours after the state executed Thomas Arthur for the 1982 murder of businessman Troy Wicker. Ivey’s office said Friday the timing was a coincidence.

Inmates condemned to death have two rounds of state appeals. The first one is a direct appeal, based on the facts of the case. The second, known as a Rule 32 appeal, allows the inmate to raise post-conviction issues, such as them competence of his or her defense attorney. Under the new law, sponsored by Sen. Cam Ward, R-Alabaster, the two appeals would run parallel to each other.

The inmate would have a year from the filing of the brief in their direct appeal to file a Rule 32 motion. The circuit court would have 90 days to dismiss claims or set them for hearing.

The legislation would not affect an inmate's federal appeals. Appeals of capital sentences can take decades. Arthur was first sentenced to death in 1983 and sentenced again after two further trials in 1992. He outlived seven death sentences before his execution Thursday night.

The Alabama attorney general’s office long sought the change. In a statement Friday afternoon, Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall said the bill stemmed from work between the attorney general’s office, prosecutors, victims’ groups and the Legislature.

“Our collective experiences with capital cases compelled us to pursue an improved appeals process for our state—one that is fairer, more efficient, and does not prolong the suffering of victims, but provides justice to all parties,” the statement said.

The legislation drew criticism from the American Bar Association and anti-death penalty groups, who said it could create situations where an inmate would have to challenge the competence of an attorney at the same time the attorney is defending them on direct appeal. ABA President Linda Klein wrote a letter to legislative leaders in early May, asking them to oppose the legislation.

“While the ABA respects the importance of finality and judicial efficiency, quicker resolution of cases where a life is at stake should not take priority over ensuring the fundamental fairness and accuracy of those convictions,” the letter said.

Frank Knaack, executive director of Alabama Appleseed, which opposed the bill, said it would "create all kinds of problems" for post-conviction attorneys trying to investigate claims of inadequate counsel.

"We were very optimistic when (Ivey) signed the (judicial) override bill that we were moving in a direction ensuring a fair and accurate death penalty process," he said. "This takes us in the opposite direction."

The Alabama Department of Corrections says as of Friday there were 183 people on death row – 178 men and five women. According to the Death Penalty Information Center, an anti-death penalty group, the number of death sentences handed down in Alabama fell from 25 in 1998 to six in 2015.

Source: Montgomery Advertiser, Brian Lyman, May 26, 2017

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