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Attorney: Proposed Innocence Inquiry Commission could save lives on death row

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DECATUR, Ala. (WHNT)-- Longtime defense attorney John Mays practices out of an office in Decatur. He knows there are no take-backs after a convict is executed. He has defended those accused of capital murder, and he even wrote a book on it.

"The problem with the death penalty is that it is final," he said. "The execution of an innocent person is a horrible thing to contemplate, and it would mean a failure in our system."

Senator Dick Brewbaker said they'd like to avoid that through his bill, which passed the Alabama Senate this week and is on its way to the House. It would establish the Alabama Innocence Inquiry Commission. It's proposed as a nine-member commission chaired by a circuit court judge, which could hear cases and turn those with clear and convincing evidence of innocence over to a three-judge panel. This panel, if unanimous, could exonerate a convict.

Sen. Brewbaker said this is not the kind of commission that would hear arguments of reasonable doubt, but new evidence.

"It could not review existing cases unless there's new evidence that no jury ever heard," he explained. "It's set up [as] just a layer of integrity to the death penalty process."

Mays supports creating more options, further than the appeals process, for convicts who believe they are innocent. He said there are a lot of hoops in the current process for a person to jump through in order to get new evidence in court.

"This means they're not going to make you jump through ten or 12 hoops to get the issue heard," he said.

"It's so you don't get bogged down in, 'How was the jury struck,' or 'did you meet the appeals deadlines?'" explained Brewbaker. "Look at what evidence is being presented by the defense. New evidence."

Brewbaker said he had spoken with defense attorneys who told him there are only two possible cases of people on death row who could "even make an assertion of new evidence" that a jury hadn't seen.

One of those is Billy Kuenzel. WHNT News 19 profiled his case in a November 2015 investigation by Al Whitaker. There was no physical evidence linking Kuenzel with the crime of which he was accused, a 1987 murder in Sylacauga.  Kuenzel's trial lasted a day and a half, and when it was over, he was headed to death row. His court-appointed attorney, Bill Willingham, stepped aside at that point and Kuenzel was left without a lawyer on his case. It was during that time that a crucial deadline in the appeals process was missed. As a result, despite all of the new evidence uncovered, every subsequent appeal has been denied or dismissed because of that missed deadline.

Brewbaker thinks this legislation could help Kuenzel get his evidence heard.

Mays said everyone deserves that chance. "If a mistake has been made and the defendant can prove a mistake has been made, he should have access to a remedy," he said. "Period. No matter when he finds it. Because people have got to have faith in the system."

He thinks it could save lives, and restore any faith that's been lost.