HUNTSVILLE, Ala. — Lawyers for Stephen Marc Stone are asking a Madison County judge to throw out the capital murder indictment against him and rule that Alabama’s death penalty system is unconstitutional.
Stone is set to go on trial March 6. Circuit Judge Donna Pate has set a pretrial conference for Friday to address pending motions and discuss the trial schedule.
Stone is charged with killing his wife Krista, and their 7-year-old son Zachary in February 2013 at their home on Chicamauga Trail in south Huntsville.
Madison County District Attorney Rob Broussard has said the prosecution is seeking the death penalty for Stone.
But the defense says Alabama’s approach to the death penalty was found unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2016, in its Hurst decision.
Stone is represented by appointed attorneys Brian Clark and Larry Marsili.
In the motion asking Pate to throw out the indictment, they argue, “Florida’s capital structure contained a fatal flaw: it allowed the Judge to find the facts determinative of a life or death sentence.
“This process, according to the Court, violated the Sixth Amendment. Alabama’s capital scheme and Florida’s are all but identical, and in all likelihood, Alabama’s capital statutes will meet the same fate due to the judicial override feature.”
Florida has since changed its death penalty system, but the Alabama Attorney General’s office says Alabama’s system is distinct from Florida’s and is constitutional. The system was challenged in a 1995 case and the U.S. Supreme Court found it constitutional, the AG’s office argues.
The Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals agreed in December, upholding three death penalty cases that were challenged under the Supreme Court’s Hurst decision. The cases had been sent back to the court by the U.S. Supreme Court, which asked it to consider the cases in light of the Hurst ruling.
The Alabama Senate Judiciary Committee took up a bill Wednesday that would end the practice of judicial overrides and, instead, let a jury render a verdict on whether the death penalty is justified or not. The measure was approved by the judiciary committee Wednesday afternoon is now headed to the full Alabama Senate.
If the death penalty is sought in a capital murder case in Alabama, there are two phases to the trial, the guilt phase and the penalty phase.
If a defendant is found guilty of capital murder, then the same jury takes up the issue of punishment. It’s either life in prison without parole or the death penalty.
The jury is asked to weigh aggravating factors that would justify a death sentence, and mitigating factors that would make a life sentence appropriate rather than death.
The jury weighs the arguments and reaches its verdict on the sentence – but, under state law it’s only a recommendation.
It takes 10 jurors to recommend a death sentence in Alabama. If it’s fewer than 10, the jury recommendation has to be life without parole.
But in Alabama, there is judicial override. The judge can accept or reject the jury’s recommendation — for either for life or death — based on the court’s own reading of the facts.
In the Hurst decision the U.S. Supreme Court found that a jury – not a judge — needs to make the decision about the facts in a case that would determine life or death.
But Alabama’s Attorney General’s office and the state’s Court of Criminal Appeals say there is a key distinction in Alabama that differs from Florida and makes the present system constitutional.
The appeals court said because a conviction on capital murder requires that the jury find that at least one aggravator has been proven, it’s just not the judge finding that a legal justification exists for a death sentence.
Alabama has a long list of aggravators, including that the killing was especially heinous and cruel, or that it was in the course of the defendant committing another felony.
Judge Pate set the hearing for 11 a.m. Friday.