Life sentence tossed in 40-year-old Dothan murder
In 1981 Russell Douglas worked two jobs to support his growing family, one at a Reeves Street convenience store. As he closed late one Saturday night, Douglas was shot in what investigators describe as a robbery.
DOTHAN, Ala. (WTVY) -A state court on Friday overturned the conviction of a man ordered to serve life without parole for the cold case murder of Dothan store clerk Russell Douglas.
The Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals ruled that Houston County denied Nathaniel Dennis, found guilty in 2019, his right to a speedy trial.
“Some people are going to see this as he got off on a technicality. People say that all the time and it drives me nuts,” Dothan attorney Eric C. Davis, who represented Dennis, told WTVY News 4.
“That technicality is the 6th Amendment of the Constitution that protects all of us,” he said.
“In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial,” that amendment states.
In 1981 Douglas worked two jobs to support his growing family, one at a Reeves Street convenience store.
As he closed late one Saturday night, Douglas was shot in what investigators describe as a robbery.
But not until 2011 did a Houston County Grand Jury indict Dennis, with Dothan police testifying that hairs on a stocking found at the crime scene matched DNA taken from Dennis, who by then was serving a prison sentence in another state on an unrelated crime.
“This man is guilty,” Houston County District Attorney Pat Jones vehemently declared on Monday. And the jury agreed, unanimously convicting him of capital murder.
Jones urges Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall to appeal the speedy trial ruling to the Alabama Supreme Court.
Marshall’s spokesperson said in an email the office is aware of the matter but did not immediately disclose plans for the case.
The Court of Criminal Appeals decision is based solely on procedural issues and not the verdict though defense attorneys, including Davis, argued at trial that Dennis has an alibi and, with a well-paying job, lacked motive.
Douglas’ children did not immediately issue a statement but an advocacy group that works closely with victims’ families is appalled by the ruling.
“It is beyond reprehensible that (the Douglas family) must continue to endure the travesty of the lack of justice for victims in our so-called criminal justice system,” said Wiregrass Angel House Executive Director Shelley Linderman.
But the state appeals court is deliberate in the basis for its opinion that Dennis’ rights were violated.
It took nine months following his 2011 indictment to transfer him from a Virginia prison to Alabama when 180 days is the general limit, that the case was tossed around among several Houston County judges, and that prosecutors before Jones became district attorney failed to produce court-ordered documents in a timely manner.
“The delays were purely on the part of the state and not the defense,” Davis recalls.
The appeals court claims Houston County judicial officials made bad faith efforts to push this case down the road.
Now 68 and serving life in Virginia for attempting to kill a coworker, Dennis will most likely die behind bars despite the Alabama ruling.
However, District Attorney Pat Jones points out that Dennis continues to fight on appeal for his freedom in Virginia. If successful. and the Alabama ruling is not reversed, he would become a free man.
Linderman said even if that doesn’t happen, Douglas’ family will not find closure if the speedy trial ruling stands.
“To continue to make the family of Russell Douglas go through this endless process of trying to get justice for the murder of their father is unspeakable. The appellate court should be ashamed of this gross miscarriage of justice,” she said.
In a separate case, and one that received national attention, murder suspect Khron Davis awaited trial in Houston County for 10 years until a jury found him guilty in 2017.
However, the speedy trial law did not apply in that case because defense attorneys requested delays, waiving Davis’ right to a speedy trial.
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