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Alabama appeals court rejects John Clayton Owens’ bid to stop death penalty trial

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John Clayton Owens and his attorney, Brian Clark, during a recent motion hearing in Madison County Circuit Court.

HUNTSVILLE, Ala. (WHNT) —  An Alabama appeals court said this afternoon it will not overturn a Madison County judge’s ruling allowing the John Clayton Owens death penalty case to begin Monday.

Owens is charged with capital murder in the death of his 91-year-old neighbor, Doris Richardson on Bide-a-wee Drive in August 2011.

The Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals denied a petition by Owens’ lawyers that argued the state’s death penalty system is unconstitutional in light of the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent ruling in Hurst vs. Florida.

Defense attorneys Brian Clark and Ron Smith have the option to appeal today’s denial to the Alabama Supreme Court.

In overturning Florida’s death penalty law, the high court found that juries, not judges, must have the final say in death penalty cases. Alabama, Florida and Delaware are the only states where a judge can override a jury’s recommendation for a life without parole or death sentence in capital murder cases.

Delaware has put its death penalty cases on hold pending a review by its state Supreme Court. Florida is reviewing its law.

Alabama Attorney General Luther Strange has said the state’s death penalty law is different from Florida’s and the ruling shouldn’t affect Alabama cases.

Madison County Circuit Judge Alison Austin Wednesday denied a motion by Owens’ lawyers asking her to find Alabama’s death penalty system unconstitutional. They argued Alabama unlawfully gives judges the last word, after independent fact-finding, in issuing a life or death sentence. The jury’s recommendation on life or death is also only advisory in Alabama.

Madison County Assistant District Attorney Bill Starnes argued that the U.S. Supreme Court could have considered Alabama’s law at the same time as Florida’s. The court chose not to, which indicates it believes Alabama’s law to be constitutional, Starnes argued. He also noted that before the January 21 execution of Christopher Eugene Brooks, the Supreme Court was asked to stay the execution based on the Hurst ruling.  A majority of the court rejected that argument.

In her ruling rejecting the defense’s motion, Judge Austin cited the Supreme Court’s refusal to take up the Alabama law.

The judge said the capital murder charge against Owens alleges that he killed Richardson in the commission of a burglary. The judge noted that burglary is also among the “aggravators” jurors are to consider – normally during the post-conviction penalty phase – in weighing whether a defendant should be sentenced to death.

Austin said that if a jury convicts Owens of capital murder, that means it unanimously agreed that his crime included the burglary aggravator, which would make him death-penalty eligible.