Judge rejects claims Alabama’s death penalty system is unconstitutional, John Clayton Owens murder trial starts Monday

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HUNTSVILLE, Ala. (WHNT) -- John Clayton Owens appears to be headed to trial Monday on charges he killed his elderly neighbor. He could face the death penalty if convicted.

Owens is charged with killing his 91-year-old next-door neighbor Doris Richardson on Bide-a-wee Drive near Five Points in Huntsville in August 2011.

Owens’ lawyers were unsuccessful Wednesday in persuading Madison County Circuit Judge Alison Austin that Alabama’s death penalty system is unconstitutional.

Defense attorneys Brian Clark and Ron Smith argued that Alabama’s system is essentially the same as Florida’s.  The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Hurst vs. Florida, on January 12, that Florida’s death penalty system is unconstitutional because it gives judges the final say in death penalty sentencing, not juries.

Smith told the court the same holds true in Alabama. He pointed out that judges are allowed to ignore a jury’s recommendation on whether a defendant should get life in prison without parole or the death penalty for a capital murder conviction.

Smith also argued the Hurst opinion found fault with the practice of allowing judges to hold an independent fact-finding process before sentencing – just like Alabama, after the jury has weighed in.

Madison County Assistant District Attorney Bill Starnes disagreed, telling the court that the U.S. Supreme Court had rejected a request to consider Alabama’s death penalty law at the same time as it agreed to take up the Hurst case.

Starnes 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.

Starnes said that showed the high court found Alabama’s death penalty system was constitutional.

Judge Austin rejected the defense argument, also pointing out the Supreme Court could have considered the Alabama death penalty system along with Florida’s, but it didn’t.

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 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 an aggravator, which would make him death-penalty eligible.

Defense attorney Brian Clark said the defense is still considering whether to appeal Austin’s ruling to a state appeals court.  That would likely delay the trial’s start date.

Delaware’s death penalty system is similar to Alabama and Florida’s. Those are the last three states where a judge has the authority to override a jury’s recommendation and issue a life or death sentence in capital murder cases.

A Delaware judge this week sent a request to the Delaware Supreme Court asking it to address questions raised by the Hurst decision. Delaware’s death penalty cases are currently stayed, pending the state’s Supreme Court opinion.

Owens’ case is set to begin on Monday morning. Sixty would-be jurors will be given questionnaires asking a range of questions, including their views on the death penalty.

The case is expected to take more than a week to complete.