BIRMINGHAM — Leaders of religious groups and cast members from the long-running TV show “Law and Order” called Monday for a new trial for Alabama death row inmate Billy Kuenzel.
"It's a matter of life and death, and the facts cry out to be heard," said actor Sam Waterston, one of several speakers at a press conference in Birmingham.
Kuenzel, a former Goodwater resident, has been on death row since 1988 for the killing of Sylacauga convenience store clerk Linda Jean Offord. Kuenzel's co-worker and roommate at the time, Harvey Venn, testified that he waited in a car while Kuenzel entered Job Bob's Crystal Convenience Store and shot Offord.
Keunzel has always maintained that he wasn't at the store at the time of the killing. Advocates for Kuenzel have questioned whether Venn, who has already completed a prison sentence for his role in the murder, was telling the truth when he identified Kuenzel as the shooter. Investigators found blood on Venn's pants, court records show, though police never uncovered any blood-stained clothing belonging to Kuenzel.
Joanna Merlin, whose late husband represented Kuenzel during the appeals process, said Kuenzel could have avoided the death penalty if he hadn’t refused to enter a guilty plea.
“He refused because he was sure he would be eventually be found innocent,” said Merlin, who, like Waterston, is a member of the “Law and Order” cast.
Joanna Merlin reads from a message from Kuenzel. Her late husband represented him. pic.twitter.com/37M8mC3HOq— Tim Lockette (@TLockette_Star) October 12, 2015
In addition to his murder conviction, Kuenzel pleaded guilty to perjury when accused, while awaiting trial, of trying to bribe a fellow inmate to provide him with an alibi. His supporters say the perjury plea has hurt his case, but that his actions weren't necessarily inconsistent with innocence.
Both federal and state appeals courts have rejected Kuenzel's innocence claims, largely on the grounds that he didn't file his appeals soon enough according to court rules.
In the Monday press conference, Kuenzel's supporters said they would ask the Alabama Supreme Court to approve a retrial for Kuenzel, despite the missed appeals deadline. Kuenzel has already appealed his case to the state's highest court; the new-trial motion, Kuenzel's supporters said, would come in the form of a "friend of the court" brief attached to that case.
"Innocence is not a technicality," said former federal prosecutor Doug Jones, one of the speakers at the event.
Religious leaders at the event said support for Kuenzel comes from both sides of the political aisle, and isn't a challenge to capital punishment itself.
"This is not a challenge to the death penalty. This is not about commuting a sentence from death to life in prison," said the Rev. Robert Schenck, director of Faith to Action, a Washington D.C. group that has advocated for the display of the Ten Commandments on public property.
"We've seen some of your courts deal with questions of technicalities and we've seen them rise to the moral challenge," Schenck said.
Asked for specific examples, Schenck cited the Alabama Supreme Court's stance on same-sex marriage. Chief Justice Roy Moore has been an outspoken opponent of same-sex unions, and his orders to the state's probate judges temporarily delayed the issuance of marriage licenses to gay couples after federal courts approved them earlier this year.
"The one thing I know about some of your justices is that they are more than legal technicians, they are legal philosophers," Schenck said.
Rev. Robert Schenk: Kuenzel death penalty case a "moral crisis." pic.twitter.com/76cmHsdRGj— Tim Lockette (@TLockette_Star) October 12, 2015
Asked why they were taking their case to the public in a press conference, organizers said they wanted Alabamians to pray for Kuenzel.
"This man's life is on the line, and by the end of the year. This is timely," said Natalie Brumfeld, director of the anti-abortion group Bound4Life. "We are asking you to pray with us and intercede for this man's innocent life."
Attempts to reach officials of the Alabama attorney general's office for comment on the case were not immediately successful Monday, nor were attempts to reach Robert Rumsey, the former district attorney who prosecuted Kuenzel in 1988.
In the past, prosecutors have often declined comment on the case except in court. In Kuenzel's April appeal hearing, lawyers for the attorney general's office pointed out Kuenzel's past perjury conviction and the fact that the shotgun shell wadding found on Offord's body was from the same manufacturer as a shell found in a garbage can at the house Kuenzel and Venn shared.
Kuenzel could have been executed months ago, if not for legal challenges to the three-drug combination Alabama plans to use to execute several inmates. Lawsuits against the state's drug protocol have put capital punishment on hold in the state since 2013. Many of those suits were dealt a blow earlier this year when the U.S. Supreme Court concluded Oklahoma's use of midazolam — also a key element in Alabama's execution protocol — did not constitute cruel or unusual punishment.
Kuenzel hasn't been a party to those lawsuits.