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Six convicted in Calhoun County cases remain on death row

William Glen Boyd had little to say at the end of his life.

Boyd had been convicted more than two decades earlier of the brutal 1986 slayings of Fred and Patricia Blackmon, a wealthy Anniston couple. He declined to give a last statement before his execution on March 31, 2011, according to news accounts

Nine people, including Boyd’s family and the family of his victims, watched as he was given a sedative then the injection that would kill him, leaving one less prisoner on Alabama’s death row. It was the last time someone convicted of a Calhoun County crime was put to death.

In July, 172 people awaited the same fate as Boyd, including 167 men and five women, all of whom have been convicted of at least one count of capital murder. 

Male death row inmates are typically housed at Holman Correctional Facility in Atmore, the only state prison where executions are carried out, while female inmates are held at Tutwiler Prison for Women in Wetumpka.

Of those prisoners, six were convicted and sentenced in the Calhoun County Circuit Court.

Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals clerk Scott Mitchell said death row inmates’ days are numbered when they exhaust all of their chances for appeal and the Alabama Attorney General’s Office files a motion to set their execution date.

Mitchell said the court has still been hearing and making decisions on appeals throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, but he expects fewer will be filed in the coming months, as the Alabama Supreme Court has imposed a halt on all jury trials until September.

‘Three different stages’

Mitchell described the appeals process in three phases, each consisting of two or three steps, assuming the inmate’s conviction and sentence are upheld at each level.

“You’ve got three different stages with three different levels of review,” Mitchell said.

After someone is sentenced to death, Mitchell said, an appeal is automatically filed with the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals. The inmate can then make an appeal to the Alabama Supreme Court, which reviews the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals’ decision.

The inmate can then file a petition for post-conviction relief, known as a “rule 32” petition, which can challenge certain aspects of the case, such as if the penalty exceeds the state’s sentencing guidelines or if new facts surface after the sentencing, in the court where the inmate was initially tried.

The case can then be appealed again in the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals and then again in federal court. In Calhoun County’s case, Mitchell said, the appeal would be filed in the federal courts’ Northern District of Alabama and reviewed in the 11th Judicial Circuit.

From there, he said, the case can be appealed to the United States Supreme Court.

Mitchell said he didn’t know how many death row inmates had successful appeals, but he’s seen more convictions and sentences overturned more often in capital cases than in any other crime.

“A death penalty case is the only criminal case where what’s called a plain error review is required,” Mitchell said.

A plain error review, he said, is when the court looks over the entire record of a case in search of errors that could have affected the outcome.

‘The injustice system’

Many death row inmates have been called monsters. But to Esther Brown, they are simply her friends.

Brown, the executive director of Project Hope to Abolish the Death Penalty, is the only member of the advocacy group that is not on the inside of Holman’s death row — the rest are all awaiting execution.

To her, the death penalty is pointless and barbaric, and isn’t a detriment to violent crime.

“The death penalty is immoral, it’s backwards,” she said. “We are the only so-called Western country that still does the death penalty. It goes back to the dark ages.”

Brown said two death row inmates from Calhoun County, Jimmy Davis and Nicholas Smith, were two of about 30 members.

Most of her friends in Holman have one thing in common, according to Brown: They come from poverty. People with money, she said, typically don’t end up there. 

“If you can afford a decent attorney, you wouldn’t end up on death row,” Brown said.

Another detriment to a death row inmate’s chances of freedom, she said, is the fact that Alabama does not appoint attorneys after the first appeal.

She said race is also a factor. About half of Alabama’s death row inmates are Black, despite African Americans making up just a quarter of the state’s overall population. Many of those Black inmates, she said, were tried with all-white juries.

“I call it the injustice system,” Brown said.

‘Meaning larger than ourselves’

It’s not uncommon for someone new on death row to develop psychiatric problems, assuming they didn’t have them before, Brown said. 

Unlike inmates who will one day be released or spend life in prison, she said, death row inmates know that their deaths loom closer than most, and they’re reminded of that every time a friend is executed.

They can either become depressed and “veg out,” Brown said, or they can find meaning in their circumstances. She said large part of Project Hope to Abolish the Death Penalty’s philosophy comes from holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl’s 1946 book, “Man’s Search for Meaning,” which details his experiences surviving a Nazi concentration camp.

“We all need to find meaning larger than ourselves. That’s not in a concentration camp or death row. That’s life.”

Here are the names and stories of those sentenced to death in Calhoun County, and their crimes:

-Former Calhoun County Circuit Judge Malcolm Street sentenced Jimmy Davis to death March 3, 1994, after he shot and killed an Anniston store clerk the year before.

Anniston police charged Davis and teenage cousins Alphonzo Phillips and Terrance Phillips on March 18, 1998, each with first-degree murder. Police said the three shot 50-year-old Johnny Hazle, who worked at Direct Oil Service on Noble Street, twice in the chest while they were robbing the business the night before.

Alphonzo Phillips pleaded guilty to first-degree robbery and Terrance Phillips pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit robbery. Both testified against Davis at his trial.

After Davis was sentenced to death, the Alabama Supreme Court denied his appeal in 1998, in which he argued that there was no concrete evidence linking him to Hazle’s murder, and that his attorneys, Steve Giddens and Jonathan Adams, failed to strike people who held biases against him from the trial jury.

The U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear Davis’ appeal a year later.

-Ellis Louis Mashburn was sentenced to death Oct. 11, 2006, nearly four years after authorities found his grandparents dead in their Alexandria home.

Calhoun County sheriff’s deputies found the bodies of Mashburn’s grandmother, Clara Birmingham and step-grandfather Henry Birmingham Jr. beaten and stabbed to death Oct. 29, 2002, in what authorities believed was a burglary gone bad. The couple had been married for seven months.

Mashburn, along with Jeremy Lee Butler and Tony Nicholas Brooks were initially charged Nov. 4 with hindering prosecution, and a Calhoun County grand jury indicted the three in March 2003 on capital murder charges.

Butler’s and Brookes’ charges were dropped. 

Mashburn pleaded guilty to five counts of murder Sept. 16, 2006, the first day of his trial, but his trial continued due to a law that required that someone charged with capital murder be convicted by a jury.

On July 13, 2013, the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals upheld Mashburn’s sentence and conviction. 

-A customer at the Pak-A-Sak in Oxford found store clerk Sean Cook dead early Nov. 28 from a gunshot to his head.

Oxford police charged James Potts with his murder the next day, but were still on the lookout for another suspect in the case: Jesse Scheuing.

Scheuing escaped to Michigan, then Iowa, where authorities in Marion County apprehended him. Scheuing was extradited to Calhoun County on Dec. 6, 2008.

In March 2009, a grand jury also indicted Tifani Kulp in Cook’s death. Potts and Kulp both pleaded guilty to first-degree robbery and murder.

A trial jury convicted Scheuing on Sept. 17 and Circuit Judge Malcolm Street sentenced him to death four days later. 

-Circuit Judge Brian Howell sentenced Nicholas Smith to death Sept. 3, 2013, after he and two other men kidnapped a Wellborn teacher, forced him to withdraw money from local banks, stabbed him repeatedly and left his body on the side of a Cherokee County road.

Smith, along with Jovon Gaston and Tyrone Thompson, kidnapped Wellborn Elementary School teacher Kevin Thompson in April 2011 from his Jacksonville apartment and forced him to withdraw money from banks in Jacksonville and Anniston. The three then drove Thompson to Clay County, where they stabbed him to death and left his body downhill from the road.

Smith was the second of the three men to be arrested. U.S. Marshals apprehended him as he was en route to the Atlanta Airport.

Gaston was also sentenced to death in 2015 and Tyrone Thompson was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

After Smith’s sentencing, the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals overturned his sentence in 2017 and granted him a new hearing. That hearing is scheduled for Nov. 16.

- Circuit Court Judge Brian Howell sentenced Joshua Eugene Russell to death Dec. 13, 2013, after he fatally shot Anniston police officer Justin Sollohub more than two years earlier.

A Lee County trial jury convicted Russell of capital murder after he shot Sollohub in the head near 19th Street and Moore Avenue.

Sollohub had been chasing Russell on foot, because Russell had been carrying a stolen gun and had warrants out for his arrest. 

Authorities captured Russell after an hours-long manhunt near the location where Sollohub had been shot. Sollohub died the next day in a Birmingham hospital.

-Jovon Dwayne Gaston was the second defendant to be sentenced to death in the 2011 killing of Kevin Thompson.

Gaston was the third man to be charged with Thompson’s death, days after he, Nicholas Smith and Tyrone Thompson kidnapped, robbed and repeatedly stabbed the teacher.

Calhoun County Circuit Judge Bud Turner sentenced Gaston to death in 2015.

The Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals also overturned his death sentence, calling for a resentencing hearing, which has yet to be scheduled.

Contact Staff Writer Mia Kortright at 256-235-3563.