On September 30, 2011, a unanimous Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals ordered a new trial for ACLU client Montez Spradley. Spradley, a young African-American man, has always maintained his innocence in the 2004 murder of a 58-year-old white grandmother in Birmingham, Alabama. No physical evidence or eyewitness testimony connected him to the murder.
Reversing Spradley's conviction and death sentence on four separate grounds, the court recognized that multiple errors in his trial resulted in a "miscarriage of justice." The prosecution's case against Spradley was alarmingly thin and riddled with inconsistencies, and the court found that the bulk of it was "improperly admitted."
This case also raised the issue of judicial overrides: though Spradley's jury convicted him on the basis of this improperly admitted evidence, it did not think he should die. Ten out of 12 jurors at the trial recommended he receive a sentence of life imprisonment without parole. Unfortunately, the trial judge rejected the jury's strong support for a life sentence, overriding the recommendation and sentencing Spradley to death. Spradley's appeal raised numerous challenges to the judge's override in his case, but the appellate court's decision to order a new trial altogether meant it did not need to address this issue.
A report released earlier this year by the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) illustrated the unreliable, biased and arbitrary nature of such judicial overrides in Alabama, which are sadly all too common.
EJI's report also revealed a disturbing trend among life-to-death override cases in Alabama: most occurred when the victim was white, as in Spradley's case, even though most homicide victims in Alabama are black. The override system in Alabama is also largely responsible for the state leading the country in death sentences and executions per capita. More than 20 percent of Alabama's condemned prisoners landed on death row though their juries voted for life. Fortunately, at least for now, Spradley will not be among them.
In ordering a new trial for Spradley, the Alabama court took very seriously the weak evidence used to convict him. The decision was a refreshing victory in the wake of Troy Davis's recent execution in neighboring Georgia, despite substantial concerns about his guilt.