HUNTSVILLE, Ala. (WHNT) – A mitigation expert says she would have dug deeper and asked many more questions if she had been part of Nicholas Acklin’s 1998 capital murder trial.
Acklin is attempting to get a new trial, citing ineffective assistance by original counsel. A hearing is underway this week in Madison County Circuit Court to determine whether the request will be granted.
The hearing comes 15 years after Acklin was sentenced to die for his role in the 1996 “Cell Phone Murders” case. Four people were shot to death at a home on University Drive. Two others were injured. Acklin was one of the shooters. The other was Joey Wilson, whom one of the victims had accused of stealing a cell phone.
Acklin is being represented by attorneys with the Southern Center for Human Rights out of Atlanta. They hope to show counsel trial failed on several fronts, most particularly by not introducing evidence Acklin, his siblings and mother had been abused by his father.
On the third day of the hearing, the defense began by calling Lori James-Towne to the stand. James-Towne leads the social work division of the Maryland Public Defender’s Office and was established as an expert in the field of mitigation investigation – identifying factors that may lessen a defendant’s culpability. She was asked to review several records involving Nicholas Acklin; his mother, Velma Evans; his brother, Fred Acklin; and another brother, Steven Acklin.
James-Towne noted what she called numerous “red flags.” She pointed to a Department of Human Resources report which detailed how the father, Theodis “Ted” Acklin, pulled a gun on Steven Acklin. The report also included mentions of the children in the home being shoved, grabbed by the neck and choked. She said she would have been especially concerned because, “the allegations were not denied by the dad, although there were discrepancies to the severity.”
Despite the allegations, the children remained in their father’s custody. He and Velma Evans divorced in 1982. James-Towne said she would not have dropped the issue of childhood abuse had she become aware of it just prior to trial – even if the defendant ordered her to – as was the case with Nicholas Acklin. Acklin’s mother disclosed the family’s troubled home life to his attorney, Behrouz Rahmati, immediately before trial. Rahmati testified he wanted to introduce the evidence, but Nicholas Acklin refused and even signed a waiver indicating it was against legal advice.
James-Towne also said she would have requested records on everyone in the family, to establish Acklin’s social history – including medical records showing chronic alcohol and drug abuse that began when he was a teen. Rahmati testified he did request certain records but only those dealing directly with Nicholas Acklin. He did not seek information about Acklin’s siblings or parents, which the defense believes would have shown the pattern of abuse.
Wednesday’s testimony also included statements from Steven Acklin. He corroborated previous evidence regarding abuse in the home, saying Ted Acklin often had a gun out when he disciplined his sons. Steven Acklin said their father would come in to their room with a belt and the gun and, “tell us he would kill all of us and kill himself.”
Only one witness is expected to testify for the defense Thursday. State Assistant Attorney General Jon Hayden has said he does not intend to call any witnesses. Once the hearing concludes, it could be a few months or more before Judge Chris Comer issues his ruling.