Citing recent U.S. Supreme Court decision, lawyers seek delay or dismissal of John Clayton Owens death penalty case

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HUNTSVILLE, Ala. (WHNT) -- Lawyers for a Huntsville man who is set to go on trial next month for capital murder asked a Madison County judge this morning to toss the case or delay it.

John Clayton Owens is charged with strangling his 91-year-old neighbor, Doris Richardson, and burglarizing her home on Bide-a-wee Drive in Huntsville in August 2011.  Owens is set to go on trial Feb. 8.  He faces a possible death sentence if convicted.

The motion filed by Owens’ lawyers argues that a U.S. Supreme Court ruling this week calling Florida’s death penalty system unconstitutional also applies to Alabama -- which has a similar system.

The high court in an 8-1 ruling found that a jury, not a judge, must have the final say in deciding facts that will determine a tougher sentence, such as life or death.

Madison County Assistant District Attorney Bill Starnes said this morning the state doesn’t believe the Hurst v. Florida decision applies to Alabama.

Starnes echoed comments made by the Alabama Attorney General’s office this week, which said, in part, “Alabama’s death penalty system was challenged last year in the U.S. Supreme Court on the same grounds that Florida’s was challenged.  The Supreme Court declined to take that case, or even to hold the case until after it resolved the Florida case.”

But the motion filed by defense attorneys Brian Clark and Ron Smith argues that like Florida, “Alabama’s scheme calls for a jury to participate concerning aggravating and mitigating factors, but the jury does not render the final judgment.

“Instead, the jury merely hands down an ‘advisory verdict’ and the Judge is free to reach his or her own decision, which directly mirrors Florida’s scheme.”

The defense motion argues that like Florida, in death penalty cases an Alabama judge conducts an independent finding of fact concerning aggravating factors that justify a death sentence. If the judge finds the aggravating factors outweigh the mitigating factors then the judge can impose a death sentence regardless of the jury’s finding.

Madison County Circuit Judge Alison Austin didn’t immediately rule on the death penalty motion. She gave attorneys on both sides until Jan. 31 to submit their arguments to the court.

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