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Alabama's Death Penalty: Still Haunted by the Past

Anna Arceneaux,
Senior Staff Attorney, ACLU Capital Punishment Project
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April 21, 2009

A single plaque hangs on the wall outside the warden’s office of Holman State Prison in Atmore, Alabama. It honors the execution team of the Alabama Department of Corrections with the Commissioner’s Award of the Year, 2007. As you wait for admittance to visit a client on death row, the plaque is a painful reminder of the men who were executed by the team on those very same prison grounds.

Last week, the team executed Jimmy Dill, a man who had been on death row for almost 20 years. It was the team’s third execution this year; two more are currently scheduled in as many months.

Alabama currently houses 204 people on its death row, the highest death-row population per capita in the country. Even the death rows of southern states with populations of comparable size pale in comparison to Alabama’s grossly disproportionate number of condemned prisoners: 88 prisoners are on Louisiana’s death row and 63 are on South Carolina’s. Neighboring Georgia, with almost twice Alabama’s population, holds 104 prisoners on death row. As death sentences are decreasing in the rest of the country, they are rising in Alabama, in part due to the trial judge’s authority to sentence a defendant to death (PDF) even when the jury — often unanimously — recommends a life sentence.

In 1931, in the small Alabama town of Scottsboro, nine African-American teenagers were accused of raping two white women. The defendants met their attorneys on the day of trial; the lawyers had no time to prepare or investigate a defense, though the evidence was weak. A mob eagerly awaited the verdicts outside the courthouse. All but one of the young men were soon convicted by all-white juries and sentenced to death.

The Scottsboro cases made their way to the U.S. Supreme Court, and out of these gross injustices emerged watershed civil rights victories. In Powell v. Alabama, the Court held that defendants charged with capital crimes are guaranteed the effective assistance of counsel. A few years later, the Supreme Court decided Patterson v. Alabama, holding that the exclusion of African-Americans from the jury denied the defendant equal protection. (ACLU attorney Walter Pollak argued both cases on the defendants’ behalf.)

Yet over 75 years later, the injustices of the Scottsboro trials still echo in the halls of Alabama courtrooms. Alabama attorneys representing indigent capital defendants are paid relative peanuts, offering them little incentive to commit the time necessary to prepare an effective defense as promised by Powell. And Alabama is the only state in the country that does not provide death-row inmates with lawyers for post-conviction appeals.

Viewing the Department of Correction’s list of prisoners executed by the State of Alabama since 1927, the top of the screen eerily announces the department’s motto: “A Proud Past, a Bright Future.” Let’s hope, instead, that the injustices resounding from Alabama’s past and present will inspire more landmark victories in the future.