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Alabama Legislature votes to cut appeal time in death penalty cases

HUNTSVILLE, Ala. -- The Alabama Legislature has given final passage to a measure that would shorten the appeals process in state court for inmates sentenced to the death penalty.

The measure’s roots are in the Madison County District Attorney’s office.

District Attorney Rob Broussard has tried a number of death penalty cases, but he’s been dismayed by how some of them have unfolded in the appellate process.

“I’m looking at guys that I prosecuted, that are on death row, that have been there 20 years,” he told WHNT News 19. “And I’m also in contact with victim’s families, who’ve honestly suffered for 20 years, just wondering ‘What’s gonna ever happen?’ And I don’t have the answer to it.”

The new law, approved by the Alabama Senate Thursday and awaiting Gov. Kay Ivey’s signature, would require new defendants in death penalty cases to file their direct appeal and their state court appeal alleging constitutional violations nearly in parallel.

Read the text of the bill, SB 187

The current system generally has the inmate file their direct appeals and then, if those are denied, they begin the so-called Rule 32 process. Under Alabama law, post-convictions are governed under Rule 32 of the state's rules of criminal procedure.

Those proceedings aim at alleged constitutional violations during the trial, such as juror bias or errors by the court or ineffective assistance of counsel.

The new law would require those filings to begin within 12 months after the sentencing and direct appeal is initiated.

The American Bar Association sent a letter to leaders in the Alabama House and Senate urging them not to pass the so-called Fair Justice Act.

The ABA cited several problems it had with the measure, including noting that in numerous instances it has taken years to uncover evidence related to the original conviction that exonerates the defendant. Under the new Alabama law, that process would be unlikely to occur, the ABA argues.

“The Fair Justice Act is unlikely to achieve its stated goal of streamlining justice; rather, this legislation suffers from serious problems that will diminish the ability of counsel to provide effective representation and the capacity of courts to deliberate in order to make fair and responsible determinations, increasing the risk of executing an innocent person,” ABA President Linda Klein wrote in the letter dated May 12.

But Madison County DA Broussard disagrees. His interest in seeing the death penalty appeals process streamlined is related to the infamous 1996 Cell Phone murders case that he helped prosecute. Four people were killed in that incident.

Two men, Nick Acklin and Joey Wilson, received death sentences in the case. They remain on death row.

“I was in my office and thinking about a death penalty case,” Broussard said. “The cell phone murders, that had happened, the individuals had been sentenced 20 years ago. And I was looking at some ludicrous appeals on their part, and I thought, ‘How does the state of Texas do it?’

“How is it that in the state of Texas you read about somebody who’s been executed, and they committed the crime, maybe eight years before. And I got my staff together and said, ‘How do they do it?’”

A measure was drafted and the DA’s office learned Alabama Rep. Lynn Greer, R-Rogersville, was pushing the same issue. They talked to Greer, Broussard said, and he agreed to push the measure drafted in Madison County.

The bill was first introduced two years ago and ran into opposition from defendant’s rights groups and others. This year it was introduced again, Alabama Sen. Cam Ward championed it in the Senate.

Broussard credits new Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall’s support of the measure as being crucial to its passage. Marshall sent out a statement Thursday praising the Legislature for its passage.

“It took dedication on the part of many who have been involved to bring this bill forward and successfully guide it through a complicated legislative process,” Marshall said. “We particularly appreciate Senator Ward's dedication to seeing the bill through the final step this morning. We look forward to its enactment so that death row appeals now may proceed in a fair and efficient manner that does not prolong the suffering of victims but that provides justice to all parties.”