One less person faces possible death at the hands of Alabama’s arbitrary capital punishment system, after the State agreed to stop seeking the death penalty for ACLU client LaSamuel Gamble late last week. Gamble, who has been on death row for nearly 16 years, was resentenced to life in prison without parole.
Gamble was a mere 18 years old when he accompanied his 16-year old friend Marcus Presley on a robbery of a pawn shop just outside of Birmingham. During the robbery, Presley shot and killed the two employees at the store. Both Gamble and Presley received death sentences for the crime, but Presley’s sentence was converted to life when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2005 that the death penalty could not be imposed on defendants who were under 18 at the time of the crime.
In 2007, while Gamble challenged his death sentence in state post-conviction proceedings, the prosecutor who had personally tried both men, District Attorney Robby Owens, testified that it would no longer be just to execute Gamble, the non-shooter, when Presley, the shooter, was now safe from execution. But then-Attorney General Troy King, disagreed. King, who saw an opportunity for political gain, publicly criticized Owens and declared that he would continue pursuing the death penalty against Gamble. Forty-one out of the 42 District Attorneys across the State spoke out against King’s actions.
That year, Gamble’s death sentence was reversed by the same judge who presided over his original capital trial, after lawyers from the Southern Center for Human Rights showed that Gamble’s trial lawyers had inadequately represented him by failing to present mitigating evidence that could have helped him avoid a death sentence. After the state appellate court affirmed the decision in 2010, the State had the choice of continuing to seek Gamble’s execution or punishing him with a sentence of life imprisonment. Because the State announced that it would continue to seek death, the ACLU joined Gamble’s defense team for the new sentencing trial. But last week, Troy King’s successor Luther Strange left politics behind and reached the right result in agreeing to a life without parole sentence for Gamble.
The odds were stacked against LaSamuel Gamble from birth. He entered a world of abject poverty, extreme violence, drug and alcohol abuse, and chaotic instability. Both of his parents suffered from severe mental illnesses that, without support, prevented them from properly caring for their children. Gamble attended 13 schools through the seventh grade and had lived in more than 40 different households by his 18th birthday. Social service records described one of these residences as a “rundown shack,” with 23 relatives crammed into four rooms; the City of Birmingham eventually condemned it. The courts agreed that this evidence likely would have made a difference in Gamble’s trial.
The odds were especially stacked against him at his first trial, when, as a young African-American man, he was tried by an all-white jury and represented by ineffective lawyers. In fact, his lawyers spent less than three hours with him preparing a defense against a death sentence. They did not meet his family members until the trial started, at the courthouse. Without a statewide public defender system in Alabama, poor capital defendants roll the dice when the court appoints counsel. Had Gamble’s attorneys had the training and resources to uncover the wealth of powerful mitigating evidence, these 16 years of litigation concerning his sentence could have been avoided.
Though he entered as a child, Gamble has grown up in prison. He is remorseful for his role in this tragic crime. When I visited him after court last week, he said he had been busy counseling his new neighbors at the county jail. Two of them had upcoming birthdays, and he told them to look carefully at their birthday cards and think about how it feels to spend the day behind bars. He asked them to remember that feeling when they are back out on the street and considering doing something that will land them right back in jail. He may not be able to change the course of his life anymore, he said, but he could help others change theirs.
Alabama continues to lead the nation in death sentences and executions per capita. As long as the state continues to seek the death penalty against those who did not kill, mixes politics into the decision of who lives and who dies, and fails to provide adequate counsel to indigent capital defendants, it will continue to bear this shameful badge. In the meantime, removing LaSamuel Gamble from death row is one small step in the right direction.