February 27, 2016
Title: An Innocence Inquiry Commission in Alabama?- A Step in the Right Direction
On Thursday, February 18th, I was informed that an Alabama State Senator had introduced legislation that would establish an Innocence Commission in Alabama. I was immediately excited as this is something that I’d hoped for, advocated for, and dreamed about for so many years. Sen. Brewbaker introduced a bill that would allow for people convicted of felonies would have an opportunity to have their cases heard by an innocence inquiry commission if there is factual evidence of innocence.
“According to Brewbaker, the purpose of the Innocence Commission is to grant a defendant a new trial or receive outright exoneration, if there, “is physical evidence that can prove actual innocence, not just reasonable doubt, but actual innocence.” Brewbaker said the commission, “would add a lot of integrity to the death penalty process for Alabama.” And hopes lawmakers will see the wisdom in “following the lead of states like Texas and establish an innocence commission.” http://www.alreporter.com/brewbaker-sponsors-historic-innocence-commission/
The bill was introduced with bipartisan support. Sen. Brewbaker referenced the North Carolina Innocence Inquiry Commission in the above quote. Since it was established in 2006, 9 individuals have been released from prison, including Greg Taylor who spent 17 years in prison for crimes he did not commit and Joseph Sledge who spent nearly FORTY YEARS in prison . Just these two individuals (Taylor and Sledge) spent a combined 55+ years in prison. They would likely still be in prison were it not for an opportunity provided by the state of North Carolina to get another shot to have their cases heard. So, again, needless to say, I was very, very excited about Brewbaker’s bill. I forgot to adhere to that cautiously optimistic stance that I’ve developed over the years. As my cousin, Rodney K. Stanberry, is in his 18th year of a 20 year sentence, all I can think about was that he would finally be able to get his case heard again. (note, March 25th, 2016 will mark the beginning of Rodney’s 19th year in prison for crimes he did not commit).
On Wednesday, February 24th, I felt the pain of disappointment and heartache when I read an article entitled: “Change: Alabama’s Innocence Commission would now only review death row cases “. I once again learned the lesson of what it does to a person to have too much hope. Peanuts character Lucy had once again pulled away the football that Charlie Brown finally thought he would be successful in kicking. The Alabama State Legislative body pulled away a shot at justice for all inmates who are innocent and incarcerated for the purpose of political expediency. I truly understand the need for death row inmates to be able to have their cases heard. A death sentence is extremely serious and it is literally a matter of life and death. Alabamians Anthony Ray Hinton was just released from death row after 30 years and William Ziegler spent 13 years on death row before eventually being released from prison. Walter McMillan ,a case, like Anthony Ray Hinton’s, so disturbing that the entire judicial system in Alabama should be on trial, died not too long after his release from death row. Here is what Bryan Stevenson of the Equal Justice Initiative said about McMillan, who spent 6 years on death row, following a trial that lasted a day and a half. This quote was reflected his feelings as a judge was finally going to order McMillan innocent and that he would be released.
“ Walter was rightfully ecstatic, but I was confused by my simmering anger. We were about to leave court for the last time, and I started thinking about how much pain and suffering had been inflicted on Walter and his family, the entire community. I thought about how if Judge Robert E. Lee Key hadn’t overridden the jury’s verdict of life imprisonment without parole and imposed the death penalty, which brought the case to our attention, Walter likely would have spent the rest of his life incarcerated and died in a prison cell. I thought about how certain it was that hundreds, maybe thousands of other people were just as innocent as Walter but would never get the help they need. I knew this wasn’t the place or time to make a speech or complain, but I couldn’t stop myself from making one final comment.” Pg 225 Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption, by Bryan Stevenson)
Bryan Stevenson and the Equal Justice Initiative worked very hard to free and exonerate Walter McMillan. But, as Stevenson mentioned, had Judge Robert E. Lee Key not overridden the jury’s verdict, McMillan would likely have died in prison. Prosecutorial and law enforcement misconduct weren’t enough to get the attention of the Equal Justice Initiative, although this is something that the group is very concerned with, rather, it was the action of a judge. Under the revised proposed Innocence Inquiry Commission legislation, a case such as McMillan’s would be heard if a judge sentenced the person to death, but in the same case if it were a life in prison sentence, the person’s case could not be heard by the innocence commission.
I asked Alabama State Senator Cam Ward, chair of the Alabama Senate Judiciary Committee, why the bill was revised to include only death penalty cases via an exchange on twitter and he responded that the sponsor of the bill requested the change because he could not get the votes passed in original form (Feb. 25, 2016 tweet @artiestan is where it can be found. I can understand why Sen. Brewbaker felt the need to withdraw his original bill for the revised bill because these high profile exonerations were in the news and it hits home among even the toughest law and order legislator. Brewbaker, for example, is a strong proponent of the death penalty, but even someone such as him can look at Anthony Hinton’s case (30 years on death row, when he should not have spent a single day in prison) and feel genuinely concerned about innocent inmates on death row, but there are many who are not on death row whose sentence can also be a matter of life and death.
Timothy Cole, a college student sentenced to prison for 25 years for a crime that he did not commit, died on year 13 of his sentence, a death sentence, essentially, he was 39 at the time of his death. Recently, the New York Magazine published a powerful piece entitled “That’s When I Knew I Was Free: Eight Exonerated Prisoners on Their First Week Outside.”
It includes two friends who were arrested when they were 16 for carjacking and murder. David McCallam spent nearly 30 years of his life in prison before his exoneration, his co-defendant, Willie Stuckey, died in prison. It can be a life and death situation whether an innocent person is sentenced to a capital or non-capital case. They were sentenced 25 years to life, not a death sentence. Imagine being given a 20 year sentence. Imagine giving a hug and kiss to your young son that cannot yet walk or talk. Imagine not being able to hear his first words, the first time he walks, the first day of school. Imagine missing his 16th birthday, and then his graduation, 18 years have passed by and you remain in prison for crimes you did not commit, while that son who was a baby is now a young man. Do these individuals not deserve a shot at justice before a state sponsored Innocence Commission?
What one discovers in being an advocate for an innocent person who is incarcerated is that there is a triage when it comes to taking on wrongful convictions- death penalty cases, life without parole cases, juveniles sentenced to life, and many law firms take on capital cases as pro bono opportunities. Stevenson in the quote above stated that he would not have heard about Hinton’s case had the judge not sentenced him to death. Beth Schwartzapfel’s reports this about Timothy Cole in her brilliant article entitled “No Country for Innocent Men : “In 1992, his case was considered by the pardon and parole board. He was asked if he was sorry for what he did. He said he didn’t do anything. He was denied parole. He kept up on emerging DNA technology, and in 1995 he wrote a letter to the newly founded Innocence Project in New York City, but the organization did not take his case. In 1996, he was denied parole again.” Timothy Cole did not live to see the statue and legislation dedicated in his honor and he, like so many, would not have a slight chance to have their cases heard in a state that has an Innocence Commission, but only for death penalty cases. He didn’t receive a death penalty, but his sentence to prison ended up being a death sentence.
Are we willing to say that, well, if you are sentenced to ten years, just take the sentence and move on, it’s only ten years of your life and we don’t want to point out the problems in your case, even if the problem included egregious prosecutorial misconduct? When someone has a 20 year sentence, innocence projects may believe that by the time a case is appealed, that the person will be free or paroled, but the innocent and incarcerated even runs into a roadblock dealing with parole- it difficult getting parole when one is not remorseful; as what is quoted in the Timothy Cole case demonstrates, it is difficult to be remorseful, when one is innocent. Award winning investigative journalists Beth Schwartzapfel points out in her award winning Washington Post article on parole entitled: “How Parole Boards Keep People in the Dark and Behind Bars”
“A months-long Marshall Project investigation reveals that, in many states, parole boards are so deeply cautious about releasing prisoners who could come back to haunt them that they release only a small fraction of those eligible — and almost none who have committed violent offenses, even those who pose little danger and whom a judge clearly intended to go free.”
So a person sentenced to 20 years in prison, even if there is overwhelming evidence of innocence, can remain in prison for those 20 years, appeals exhausted and no chance for substantive help. As included in Beth’s article as it relates to Alabama:
“In Alabama, it’s almost unheard of for the board to grant parole over victim opposition. The board also routinely receives letters opposing parole from the governor, the attorney general and other elected officials.
“That’s going to impact the disposition when they protest, almost universally,” Alabama board Chairman Robert Longshore said. “You’ve got a very politicized victim community in the state of Alabama
In Rodney’s case, we have been told by attorneys who said that by the time they get his case into court on an appeal, that he would likely be paroled, thus the resources need to be used on cases where inmates have longer sentences. Rodney, under the situation described by Longshore, who denied Rodney parole three times, by the way, did not have a fighting chance to get parole. The newly passed Alabama Prison Reform bill is supposed to provide some relief for inmates who have 12-24 months left on their sentences, but this is not the reality. What the bills says and what is actually happening are two different realities, but that is the subject for another day.
The innocence inquiry bill introduced in the Alabama Senate easily made it through the judiciary committee and goes to the full Alabama senate floor. It, of course, has to pass the House side of the Alabama legislative body. I applaud this step that the legislature is taking and I certainly would not speak out against a bill that recognizes that innocent people are in prison and that they need for the state to do more to address this. Alabama Attorney General Luther Strange said about the bill: “”Senate Bill 237 is unnecessary as death row inmates already have access to a process to establish innocence under the Rules of Criminal Procedure. Furthermore, the bill would supplant the role of the current judicial system by creating a ‘fourth layer of appeals’ outside of the review already provided by the circuit courts, Court of Criminal Appeals, and the Alabama Supreme Court.” Also “Strange urged senators to join him and the victims of violent crime in “standing on the side of justice and oppose this bill.” http://www.al.com/news/birmingham/index.ssf/2016/02/change_alabama_innocence_inqui.html
The sentiment expressed by AG Strange is echoed by districts attorneys who would rather get a conviction and maintain a conviction, rather than acknowledging prosecutorial misconduct and that they convicted innocent people; For the state to acknowledge that something needs to be done is worthy of applause. I am in a position of being frustrated and heartbroken that the original bill isn’t being considered, but I am excited that the state of Alabama is moving in the right direction. It shows that humanity is seeping through among some legislators. But this same humanity must be shown for people who are not sentenced to death. Do they not deserve to have their case heard by a proposed Alabama Innocence Inquiry Commission?
Please take a moment to thank Sen. Brewbaker for introducing this legislation. He can be reached by clicking here- Brewbaker. And if you are in Alabama but are not sure who represents you in the Alabama House and Senate, then please click here to locate your legislators and consider contacting them: http://capwiz.com/state-al/home/
Also, you can express your thoughts about whether all felony cases should be included as his original bill proposed. The session is relatively short, so do not delay.
I have spent nearly 20 year of my life fighting for the exoneration of Rodney K. Stanberry, I will spend another 20 years if necessary. Even if this bill is not amended to include all felonies, we must not give up on the fight to support innocence commissions, conviction integrity units, and electing prosecutors and attorney generals who do not place the conviction above true justice. When prosecutors run unopposed, they have no incentive to change. DA Ashley Rich, when she was running seemed sympathetic toward the possibility that innocent people are in prison, as the actual DA, not so much. Don’t give, justice is worth fighting for.