Judge rejects request to toss indictment of man charged in south Huntsville double murder

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HUNTSVILLE, Ala. -- A judge has made two major rulings in the death penalty case of Stephen Marc Stone, allowing his indictment to stand and naming a doctor to assess if Stone is competent to stand trial.

Stephen Marc Stone’s lawyers had asked Madison County Circuit Judge Donna Pate to throw out his capital murder indictment on the grounds that Alabama’s system of letting a judge have the last word in death penalty cases is unconstitutional.

Stone is charged with fatally strangling his wife, Krista Stone, and drowning their 7-year-old son, Zachary, in February 2013 at their home off Chicamauga Trail in south Huntsville.

Pate denied the request to toss the indictment Tuesday, citing two Alabama Supreme Court decisions from 2016 that rejected appeals based on the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Hurst vs. Florida. The high court had found Florida’s death penalty system, which is similar to Alabama’s, unconstitutional.

Alabama officials have said Alabama’s system is slightly different in key ways and is constitutional.

But Alabama’s method of deciding death penalty sentences may be changing. The Alabama Senate has voted to end so-called judicial override in death penalty cases and the Alabama House could vote on a similar bill this week.

Alabama is the last state that allows a judge to overrule a jury recommendation on a capital murder sentence of life in prison or death. If the bills passes, basic procedures in Alabama’s death penalty cases will change.

Pate also ordered Tuesday that Stone undergo a mental evaluation by Birmingham-based psychologist Alan Blocky, to assess if he is competent stand trial.

The defense has asked for a competency hearing to determine if Stone understands the charges against him and can assist the defense in his capital murder.

The defense has also notified the court that it intends to argue that Stone is not guilty by reason of insanity. Under Alabama law, the defense has to show that the defendant’s mental disease or defect was so severe at the time of the crime that he didn’t understand nature or wrongfulness of his actions. Basically, that he didn’t know right from wrong.

Stone’s trial was set for March, but that has been continued with no new date set. The prosecution and defense must now wait for the doctor’s report on Stone’s competence.

The bill that passed the Alabama Senate on judicial override is different from the bill waiting for a vote in the Alabama House. The Senate bill requires a unanimous jury verdict, 12-0, after a sentencing hearing in order to sentence a defendant to death.

The current House version requires 10 jurors – the same as the present system – to approve a death sentence. In the current system, if three jurors vote against a death sentence, the jury has to recommend life without parole. But, the judge could override that.

In both bills in the legislature, the judge would lose that power and would have to abide by the jury’s decision.