By Gary Lloyd
Attorney General Luther Strange last week announced major criminal justice reforms that he will advocate for in the upcoming session of the Alabama Legislature.
Standing with prosecutors, law enforcement officers and state legislators at news conferences held around the state, Strange is asking legislators to strengthen the death penalty appeals process and to provide better investigative tools to fight crime.
“During my time as attorney general, I have observed the dedication of law enforcement and prosecutors, and their determination to protect the citizens of Alabama,” Strange said. “I have listened to their concerns for changes that are needed to give them better tools and to make the criminal justice process stronger and more effective.
“Death penalty appeals in Alabama seem endless, with excessive delays that serve only to prolong pain and postpone justice for the victims of these heinous crimes. We are proposing fair and sensible changes to make the system work better for everyone. We also send a clear message that we will not tolerate the slaughter of our children at schools, with changes in the law that specify it is a capital crime to murder them and others who are particularly vulnerable.”
The Fair Justice Act offered by Strange and the Alabama District Attorneys Association would amend two parts of Alabama’s death penalty law. The legislation is sponsored by Rep. Lynn Greer and Sen. Bill Holtzclaw.
The first bill addresses the appeals process. Following a capital conviction, there is a period of “direct appeals” in which the defendant may seek to overturn the conviction and death sentence. Afterward, the defendant may file a “Rule 32” petition for post-conviction relief to challenge the conviction and death sentence. Currently, defendants may wait until one year after the conclusion of direct appeals to their convictions and sentences before even beginning Rule 32 appeals of their sentences. The Fair Justice Act requires capital defendants to file Rule 32 petitions within 180 days of filing their first direct appeal. Capital defendants would receive better representation by having their claims considered earlier in the process, and indigent defendants would be appointed counsel for the Rule 32 petition within 30 days of being sentenced. The Fair Justice Act calls for a final decision by the circuit court on the Rule 32 petition within 180 days after the direct appeal is completed. This act will make the appellate process more efficient while maintaining the same opportunities for court review and enhancing representation currently provided to death row defendants, Strange said.
The second bill provides protections for school students and certain others who are “particularly vulnerable” by expanding classifications for killings that may be prosecuted as capital offenses. These offenses would include the murder of any person on a school campus, any person in a day care or child care facility, anyone who is covered by a “protection from abuse” order when the murder was committed for intimidation or retaliation for the order, and any family member of law enforcement or a public official when the murder was intended for intimidation or retaliation against the officer or official. The Fair Justice Act would make it an aggravating circumstance — a factor to be considered in determining whether to impose the death penalty — to murder a law enforcement officer when the officer is acting in the line of duty.
Two additional bills are in Strange’s legislative package: The Child Protection and Safe Streets Act of 2014, which would enable law enforcement to monitor phone communications among criminals to gather evidence that may include admissions of guilt and information about future crimes that might be prevented, and the Alabama Witness Safe Harbor Act, which would repair a deficiency in current state law regarding immunity from prosecution for witnesses.
Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office Chief Deputy Randy Christian said the package will make it easier to solve crimes, convict criminals, strengthen the laws that protect young people and streamline the process in death penalty cases.
“Of particular interest here in Birmingham and Jefferson County is the law already practiced in 49 states that will compel someone with information to take immunity in exchange for testimony,” Christian said. “This should take the ‘snitch’ fear out of the equation that so often is a barrier to bringing a criminal to justice. Attorney General Strange is addressing issues that need it and he certainly has our full support and appreciation. Hopefully our state lawmakers will recognize the value of this package and see it through. We will be a safer Alabama if that happens.”
Contact Gary Lloyd at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @GaryALloyd.