MADISON, Ala. - Decedric Ward, 22, and Trevor Cantrell, 19, face capital murder charges for the murder of 18-year-old Jason West, meaning if convicted, they would face life in prison without the possibility of parole or the death penalty.
WHNT News 19 spoke with Ron Smith, a defense attorney who says he's worked around ten different capital cases in the last few years, to clarify what goes into constituting a capital murder charge and what gets weighed during the decision to seek the death penalty.
By definition, Smith says, "Capital murder is basically an intentional murder plus a factor or several factors that aggravate it and make it worse."
Of course, murder is almost always heinous, but aggravating factors that elevate it to capital murder include: killing a child under fourteen, shooting someone from a car, shooting someone who is in a car, and a number of others.
The specific aggravating factor cited in the capital murder charges for Ward and Cantrell is that West was allegedly killed during a robbery.
Escalating the charge to capital murder eliminates options for leniency. Smith notes, "The only punishment you can get in a capital case is either life without parole or the death penalty, but to get the death penalty, the state must show that the aggravating factors of the crime outweigh the mitigating factors of the crime."
In general, Smith says mitigating factors might include: intellectual disability, criminal history, and upbringing.
For this specific case, if the state wishes to seek the death penalty, the narrative spelled out by Madison detectives gives them two aggravating factors, "The state would love to have the ability to say, 'Ok, this is what makes it worse. One, it was during a robbery. Two, it was from a car.'"
But Smith is quick to point out that even in a case that appears to have aggravating factors, when it comes to the death penalty, "It's not an automatic. Just because you committed a murder during a robbery or you committed a murder during a burglary does not mean you're going to get the death penalty."
So when district attorneys review a case, Smith says, "They look at things from a juror's perspective . . . They look at one - what did the defendant do during the crime? One of the big aggravators that we didn't talk about was whether the crime was heinous, atrocious and cruel."
Of course, those words exist in a cruel context already, but Smith elaborates on the legal bearing of the terms, "It doesn't have to be torture, but they did something that caused the person to suffer more than the normal murder victim to suffer."
Smith points to another major consideration when reviewing a case before possibly seeking the death penalty, "How strong a case do they have? Do they have a lock solid case that these are the guys that actually did the crime."
WHNT News 19 spoke with the Limestone County District Attorney on Wednesday. He told us it is still too early in the process to make any kind of determination on what sentence they will pursue.