Alabama Supreme Court rejects John Clayton Owens’ bid to have state’s death penalty ruled unconstitutional

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HUNTSVILLE, Ala. (WHNT) -- 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 eight 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 one 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 one 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.