MONTGOMERY, Alabama - Attorney General Luther Strange is seeking to accelerate the pace of death penalty appeals in Alabama, noting decades can go by before inmates see the execution chamber.
Strange said a bill to streamline the death penalty appeals process will be a top priority for him in the upcoming legislative session.
"It shouldn't take decades through the appeals process to get justice for families," Strange said in an interview.
The attorney general said death penalty appeals in Alabama currently "seem endless with excessive delays that serve only to prolong pain and postpone justice for the victims of these heinous crimes."
Strange is announcing his legislative agenda today in a series of press conferences around the state.
He is also backing proposals that would make it a capital offense to kill someone at a school or day care and also to give state law enforcement the power to do wiretaps during murder, drug and other certain investigations.
Currently, a person given the death penalty has a series of direct appeals, first to the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals, and then to the Alabama Supreme Court and the U.S. Supreme Court. After those are complete, the defendant can begin Rule 32 appeals, post-conviction appeals that look at other issues such as the trial lawyer's competence.
The proposed legislation, dubbed The Fair Justice Act, would run both sets of appeals simultaneously. Capital defendants would be required to file Rule 32 petitions within 180 days of filing their first direct appeal.
Strange said the proposal is similar to what Texas and Virginia have done.
The average stay on the state's death row has been nearly 16 years since the U.S reinstated the death penalty. However, the time between sentencing and execution is expected to increase since the inmates currently on death row have already been there an average of 13 years.
The longest-serving death row inmate in Alabama has been there for 34 years. Arthur Lee Giles was sentenced to death in 1979 when he was 19 years old.
The legislation is backed by district attorneys across the state.
"The Fair Justice Act takes a comprehensive approach to streamlining the appeals process in death penalty cases so that family members of victims will not have to suffer for decades awaiting justice to be done," St. Clair District Attorney Richard J. Minor said in a statement about the bill. Minor is president of the Alabama District Attorneys Association.
Strange said the expedited process would not infringe on defendants' rights.
"You get the same level of appeals, but you do them on a dual track," Strange said. The defendant would still have a round of federal appeals.
But the proposal is expected to draw opposition from death penalty opponents and others who say it will get quicker executions but not necessarily better justice.
The attorney general is also backing legislation:
- To allow state law enforcement the ability to do wire taps for investigations into murder, kidnapping, child pornography, human trafficking, sex offenses involving children under 12, and felony drug offenses. Alabama law enforcement organizations currently do not have the ability to seek wiretaps, although police in many other states do. The wiretaps would have to be approved by the court.
- To include murders at a school or day care in the list of crimes that can be prosecuted as a capital offenses.
- To let prosecutors grant immunity and compel testimony from witnesses. Alabama is the only state that allows the witness to decline immunity and thus to withhold testimony, according to the attorney general's office.
The 2014 legislative session begins as Strange is seeking a second term as attorney general. The session begins Jan. 14.
"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," Strange said.
Number of Inmates on Death Row: 194
Average Age of Inmates on Death Row: 26
Number of Alabama executions since the U.S. reinstated the death penalty in 1976.
Longest a current inmate has been on death row: 34 years
Method of execution: Lethal injection unless the inmate requests electrocution.
Source: Alabama Department of Corrections