Published Tuesday, October 30, 2007
By Dana Beyerle Montgomery Bureau Chief
MONTGOMERY The president-elect of the American Bar Association and Attorney General Troy King squared off Monday over an ABA report calling for an end to Alabama’s executions.Birmingham attorney Tommy Wells, who becomes president of the nation’s largest lawyer’s group in August, defended the report that said Alabama’s and four other state death penalty systems are “deeply flawed.”
“The ABA has taken no position on the death penalty,” said Wells. “The only position is if you’re going to impose the death penalty, you got to make sure the system gets it right.” But King disagreed, saying the ABA has an agenda.King’s message to the organization: Mind your own business.“If you talk to the families of crime they will tell you there already is a moratorium in Alabama where it takes far too long to execute someone without interference by outside groups that come to Alabama and tell us how to run our state,” King said.
Without citing specifics, a Monday news release from the ABA called for a nationwide moratorium on executions so states can study whether their legal systems meet legal standards for fairness and due process.
Gov. Bob Riley recently temporarily stayed an execution, pending a change in the way the state administers lethal injection. But he doesn’t support a moratorium.“We haven’t read the report, but I can say the governor supports the death penalty and opposes a moratorium,” spokesman Jeff Emerson said.
The ABA’s Death Penalty Moratorium Implementation Project said problems common to death penalty states include major racial disparities in imposing the death penalty, inadequate defense for the indigent, and irregular clemency reviews.
The study also cited what it called serious problems in many states, including elected judges who may feel pressure from voters, judges’ ability to ignore jury recommendations of life in prison without parole, inadequate understanding of mental illness and retardation, inadequate preservation of evidence through the entire legal process, and relatively short periods of time to file appellate petitions for review.
Keith Norman, executive director of the Alabama Bar Association, said its position is the same as the national bar. He said the state bar advocates a statewide death penalty commission to oversee indigent defense.King said Alabama’s death penalty system must already adequately protect the rights of murderers or “you’d see wholesale reversals and you don’t see that. “It’s not just Alabama appellate courts, it’s all the way up [to the U.S. Supreme Court],” he said.
The ABA committee that produced Alabama’s report included state Sen. Hank Sanders, D-Selma, defense attorney William Clark, former University of Alabama law professor Daniel M. Filler, and former U.S. Magistrate Judge John L. Carroll.
The ABA said Alabama, Georgia, Indiana, Ohio, and Florida should stop executions and study their implementation.“Until states take a look at their own systems using some sort of uniform standards we believe there ought to be a moratorium until we can be sure it’s fair and the citizens of a state are getting justice they believe they ought to have, especially a defendant wrongly accused,” Wells said.
For their part, some former or current prosecutors said the bar association is pushing an anti-death penalty agenda. Tuscaloosa County District Attorney Tommy Smith said the ABA should not criticize the practice of allowing judges discretion in sentencing someone to death.
“As far as judges reviewing [a jury recommendation], it was mandated by the Supreme Court and instituted 30-plus years ago in order to create a buffer between jury decisions and someone getting different sentences,” Smith said. “Part of what a judge has to consider is whether the sentence in this case is proportionately or disproportionately the same as others.”