Alabama extends time for executions, ends automatic review

 1618401862 
1674125697
Alabama Governor Kay Ivey speaks behind a podium at the Alabama Military Law Symposium in August 2021

Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey speaks at the Alabama Military Law Symposium in August 2021.

Hal Yeager, Office of Gov. Kay Ivey

MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) — Alabama has changed death penalty procedures to give the prison system more time to carry out executions — a move that comes after a string of troubled lethal injections in the state — and also eliminated an automatic review for trial errors in death penalty cases.

Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey’s office called the time window change a “win for justice” and supporters said the appeal change would ease the burden on the court system. But a noted death penalty lawyer said the changes end a crucial avenue of review and increase the likelihood of “more cruelty and potential torture.”

The Alabama Supreme Court announced the changes to appellate procedure last Friday. At Ivey’s request, the court abolished the previous one-day time frame to carry out a death sentence. Instead, the governor will set a window of time for the execution. A divided court in a 6-3 decision also eliminated an automatic “plain error review” where the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals automatically reviews death penalty cases for a clear error at trial even though the defense lawyer did not object. Justices said judges on the appeals court may undertake the review, but are no longer required to do so.

“I think the combination of these two rules increases the likelihood that we’re going to see more wrongful convictions, more unjust sentences and more cruelty and potential torture,” said Bryan Stevenson, founder of the non-profit Equal Justice Initiative.

Bryan Stevenson speaks onstage during the celebration of Harry Belafonte's 95th Birthday with Social Justice Benefit at The Town Hall on March 01, 2022 in New York City.
Bryan Stevenson says that the changes to death penalty procedures could lead to more wrongful convictions. (Dia Dipasupil/Getty Images)

Stevenson said that nearly 40% of the reversals in Alabama death penalty cases have come under the plain error review. He said the rule has been in place since the death penalty was reinstated in Alabama in 1976, and its repeal is “shocking.”

Justice Jay Mitchell wrote in a concurring opinion that the change will relieve the court’s burden so they are no longer required to “scour the record in search of such errors, nor will it be compelled to analyze claims of error.” He said lawyers for death row inmates can present the issues in other appeals.

“Plain-error review requires already overloaded appellate courts to spend hundreds, if not thousands, of hours per case scrutinizing trial-court records for possible errors and then explaining why those errors are (or are not) reversible,” Mitchell wrote.

However, two justices who are former members of the Court of Criminal Appeals dissented in the decision.

Justice Kelli Wise wrote that she could not support a complete repeal despite the time required.

“In these cases, the defendants’ very lives are at stake, and I believe that such cases are entitled to heightened review on direct appeal,” Wise wrote.

The court also granted Ivey’s request to expand the amount of time that Alabama has to carry out an execution. Ivey asked for the change after announcing a “top-to-bottom” review of execution procedures. The review came after an unprecedented third failed lethal injection in the state following problems with intravenous lines and late-running appeals.

Death warrants issued by the Supreme Court had been limited to a single day, resulting in a midnight deadline to get the execution underway. Now, after the court issues a death warrant, the governor will set a time window to carry out the execution. Justices left it up to the governor to decide how long that time window will be.

“I view this as a win for justice. As we initially interpret the order, it secures an extended time frame, which was a primary request of the governor’s,” Ivey spokeswoman Gina Maiola said in an email. She said the governor’s staff will review the order with the prison system.

Stevenson says while other states give longer than a day, no state allows a governor that kind of power. He said it would allow already problematic executions to go on for longer.

The state in November called off the execution of Kenneth Eugene Smith, which was the state’s second such instance of being unable to put an inmate to death in the preceding two months and its third since 2018. The state completed an execution in July, but only after a three-hour delay caused at least partly by the same problem with starting an IV line.

 

Lawmakers consider medical cannabis revamp

It’s been three years since Alabama lawmakers passed legislation establishing a system to govern medical cannabis in the state, yet not one prescription for the drug has been filled. The rollout has been delayed by lawsuits and conflict over the licensing process.

Man arrested in connection with device that exploded outside Alabama attorney general’s office

Kyle Benjamin Douglas Calvert, 26, of Irondale, Alabama, was arrested Wednesday on charges of malicious use of an explosive and possession of an unregistered destructive device, the U.S. attorney’s office said.

For some Gulf South schools, a March Madness loss can still be a win off the court

Making it into the NCAA Tournament can translate to boosts in student enrollment, athletic involvement, merchandise sales and more for participating schools.

‘A bad day to be a panther’: Students react to BSC’s closure

Birmingham-Southern College students learned about their school's closure while on Spring Break. When they returned to campus, their emotions ranged from frustrated to angry to sad.

Bill revamping ethics law advances in the legislature

Lawmakers also took up the General Fund budget and a proposal to increase the number of medical cannabis licenses.

Restrictions on absentee ballot help in Alabama are being challenged in a lawsuit

The Alabama State Conference of the NAACP, the League of Women Voters, and other groups are plaintiffs in the lawsuit filed in federal court. They say the statute disenfranchises voters, including senior citizens and disabled voters, who may need assistance in the absentee voting process.

More Crime Coverage