Montez Spradley, an Innocent Man Once on Death Row, Is Free

Montez Spradley is finally free. He walked out of prison late last week, after spending more than nine years behind bars — including three-and-a-half years on Alabama’s death row — for a murder he did not commit. 

I began representing Montez seven years ago, not long after joining the ACLU. From the very first day that I met him, Montez maintained his innocence. No physical evidence ever tied him, a young Black man, to the 2004 murder of a 58-year old white woman in Birmingham. The prosecution instead relied on the highly tainted and inconsistent testimony of his disgruntled ex-girlfriend as well as a jailhouse snitch, who both claimed he had confessed to them. 

Montez’s jurors did not want him to die. They voted 10-2 to sentence him to life, but the trial judge who presided over his first trial, Judge Gloria Bahakel, overrode their decision of life in prison and sentenced him to death, in a process known as “judicial override.”  More than 20 percent of the men on Alabama’s death row have been sent there by Alabama judges, even though their juries voted for life. While Florida and Delaware still have judicial override on the books, only Alabama continues to use it with disturbing frequency. And Alabama judges almost never use override to reverse a jury’s death verdict to impose life. In fact, since 1976, death-to-life overrides have only happened nine times — and only once in the last 10 years — compared to 99 times the Montez way.

Montez was not the first innocent man to arrive to death row after a judge had overridden the jury’s life vote, and until the practice is shut down, he will not be the last.  Residual doubt about a defendant’s guilt is often a major reason why a jury would vote for life. The fact that innocent people continue to be sentenced to death, especially when a jury would have spared their lives, is the very definition of a failed system. 

Fortunately, in a rare victory, the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals recognized that Montez’s first trial had been a “miscarriage of justice.” Still, it took years to untangle the web of police misconduct and judicial misconduct by Judge Bahakel that led to Montez’s conviction and death sentence.

Montez had heard rumors that his ex-girlfriend had been paid reward money, but it was not until we won his appeal, that we started to find evidence of the payments. And we learned that she had been paid an incredible sum for her testimony: $10,000. We learned that she had tried to back out before Montez’s trial and told the police that Montez had never confessed to her. Rather than honoring the truth, they dangled the $10,000 over her head and threatened to take her children away and to prosecute her for perjury if she did not “stick with her original story.” 

Neither the police nor the prosecutors ever disclosed the payments to the defense.  Judge Bahakel, before sentencing Montez to death, had signed off on a payment herself. Yet she never told Montez’s trial lawyers about it, and her order authorizing the payment never made it into the court file. We also knew that the lead detective on the case — the same one who authorized the payments — had lied on the stand about the ex-girlfriend’s statement to him. Unfortunately, such things are far too common in our system where the state often focuses on winning rather than justice. 

Police and prosecutors are rarely held accountable for their misconduct. In fact, the lead detective on the case — the same one who lied on the stand at trial — was honored with an award from a victims’ rights group for solving this cold case that led to Montez’s arrest. No one should be rewarded for turning a blind eye to truth and justice, especially when it means an innocent person faces execution.    

Montez is still a young man. More than anything, he wanted his freedom so he could be there for his children, and now he gets to be more present in their lives and watch them grow. But nothing can give him those years back, and he faces many challenges ahead.

Others have not fared as well. Innocent people, and people whose juries wanted them to live, remain on death row. For Montez and for them, it is time to reject the failed system of capital punishment.

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Anonymous

Typical white railroad. The entire white system is guilty as hell. If I was whit I would kill myself. U honkeys are the dirtiest people God has EVER placed on this planet. You guys should have never been allowed to leave those caves and NEVER should have been taught to walk upright. But there's a God that can't be bribed and he does not do connections he will take care of you'll dirty rotten ass.

Mike in São Paulo

We're not all like that. Just like you're not all thugs and killers.

Anonymous

The "white system" as you call it, definitely has problems, but YOU might try some education and find a way to beat the system with itself. Much more constructive use of anger. "Someone who is unwilling to learn, cannot be taught, while someone who is determined to learn cannot be stopped." Don't be stopped. I don't disagree that part of our society gets a raw deal, but it only will be fixed when you get involved and work your way to a position that can effect change. I can only speak out when I see it and call out those of my own skin tone when they say something stupid. I don't say it is easy, but it can be done. It must be done for all our sakes. As to judgement, be careful what you wish for. Read the entire passage, not just the part that pleases your outrage.

Anonymous

Shut up white guy

Honkey Cracker

Oooooga, ooooga. What's that darky doin over there, with that white lady.

Anonymous

Well this guy is racist as hell

Anonymous

What's the point in a trial by jury if they use this judicial override? This sounds like a system designed to make the powers that be look and feel good at the expense of serving the community. The inmates are running the asylum.

Anonymous

A failed system of capital punishment is about as bad when you get to stay in prison for life. Don't hold your breath waiting for lying detectives and complicit judges who make up stuff to get a conviction to be held to account. Not much chance of any change when SC Justice Scalia himself has said "This court has never held that the Constitution forbids the execution of a convicted defendant who has had a full and fair trial but is later able to convince a habeas court that he is ‘actually’ innocent”.

Anonymous

Now lets free a Innocent man by the name of Carlos Coy

Anonymous

So what happens to the judge now? That's a Brady violation at the very least.

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