By Christopher Zoukis
The Alabama Senate gave final passage on May 18th to the “Fair Justice Act” (Senate bill 187), a measure designed to speed up state appeals in death penalty cases, and on May 26th, Gov. Kay Ivey signed it into law.
That was also the day that Alabama carried out its long-delayed execution of Tommy Arthur, a 75-year-old inmate who had been convicted of a murder committed in 1982. Over the last 16 years, his execution had been scheduled on seven different dates, but each time was postponed by a series of legal appeals. The widely-publicized case highlighted how inmates in the state sometimes can remain on Death Row for decades.
The new bill, which will cover sentencing from July 1, sets new deadlines for filing appeals under state law, as well as how long state courts can take in deciding on those appeals. It would, for capital cases, amend Alabama’s Rule 32 on post-conviction appeals based on trial defects, such as jury misconduct or ineffective assistance of counsel, by requiring that such appeals be brought at the same time as any other appeals the defendant may make.
Without this change, inmates facing death sentences can wait up to a full year after a direct appeal of their conviction before filing a Rule 32 appeal and beginning what can be a lengthy appeals process. The new law affects only appeals based on state law, so does not have any effect on appeals based on federal legal or constitutional claims.
State Attorney General Steve Marshall, a supporter of the bill, said it will allow death penalty appeals to “proceed in a fair and efficient manner,” providing justice to all parties and avoiding prolonging the suffering of victims’ families. He estimates the new state law could bring an average five to six-year reduction in the time it takes the state to carry out death sentences, which would save the state more than $100,000 in total incarceration costs per condemned inmate. As of mid-June, Alabama had 182 inmates with death penalty convictions.
Marshall also claims that even with the sped-up timeline for appeals, the new law will not reduce inmates’ opportunities for appeal, and will bring them better legal representation by requiring that they be appointed counsel for Rule 32 post-conviction appeals within 30 days of receiving a death sentence.
But opponents of the measure, including the American Bar Association, disagree. ABA president Linda A. Klein wrote legislators saying the bill would be “unlikely to achieve its intended goal of streamlining justice,” since it might “unduly limit counsel’s ability” to investigate potential issues for post-conviction appeals. Although the group takes no position on the death penalty itself, the ABA said the Alabama law runs counter to guidelines it has adopted for how appeals for such cases, including post-conviction appeals, should be handled.
Streamlining appeals procedures is not the only capital case topic on which Alabama has legislated recently. In April, Gov. Ivey signed into law a bill passed by wide margins in the legislature to end the state’s unique law allowing judges to impose the death penalty even when a jury has recommended life imprisonment instead.
Christopher Zoukis is the author of Federal Prison Handbook: The Definitive Guide to Surviving the Federal Bureau of Prisons, College for Convicts: The Case for Higher Education in American Prisons (McFarland & Co., 2014) and Prison Education Guide (Prison Legal News Publishing, 2016). He can be found online at ChristopherZoukis.com and PrisonerResource.com.