MONTGOMERY — Some death penalty cases would get an extra review, and executions put on hold until mid-2017, under a bill approved by an Alabama Senate committee Wednesday.
In a unanimous vote, the Senate Judiciary Committee approved a bill to create an Innocence Inquiry Commission to review capital murder convictions when new evidence of a convict’s innocence emerges. The bill would also halt executions in Alabama until June 1, 2017. The committee's vote moves the bill to the full Senate for consideration.
"If we're going to take this on ourselves, to execute someone, if we're going to take away their ability to accept Christ and all the other things that go with being alive, we have an obligation to be absolutely sure the people we're executing are guilty," said Sen. Dick Brewbaker, R-Montgomery, the bill's sponsor.
Brewbaker, a death penalty advocate, said a review of death penalty cases is needed to shore up the public's confidence in the death penalty. He cites recent exonerations of felons in Alabama, and notes that some other death penalty states, such as North Carolina, have review panels in place.
Brewbaker's bill would create an eight-member panel that could review death penalty cases looking only at claims of innocence, returning those cases to the original court if they believe the evidence of innocence is strong. The bill originally covered all felony cases; an amended version approved by the committee Wednesday would allow review only of capital crimes.
There are 184 people on Alabama's death row. The longest-running case dates back to 1979. Inmates typically challenge the fairness of their trial or the constitutionality of lethal injection in appeals courts.
Brewbaker has said he's concerned about innocence claims that don't get heard by the court. At least one death row inmate — William Kuenzel, convicted the 1980s murder of a Sylacauga convenience store clerk — has argued that a missed filing deadline kept his claim of innocence from being heard by a court. Kuenzel's lawyers have asked the Alabama Supreme Court to grant him a new trial.
State prosecutors said the bill would add time and expense to an already lengthy death penalty process.
"Just look at North Carolina," said Thomas Govan, a lawyer for the Alabama Attorney General's office. "Most of the petitions that have been filed are two hundred, three hundred, four hundred pages."
He said a death penalty moratorium would delay executions even of inmate's who've confessed to their crimes.
"There's simply no reason for an outright moratorium on the death penalty," he said.
Victims of Crime and Leniency, a victim's advocacy group that was still undecided about the bill last week, has also come out against Brewbaker's measure.
"Victims do not want an innocent person executed," Grantham said. "We just want the appeals nightmare to end."
Stephen Stetson, a lawyer for the group Alabama Arise, said the innocence panel was need as a "recognition of human frailty" in the justice system.
"This in an instance when we want to be 100 percent sure," Stetson said.
At least one Democrat on the committee, Sen. Hank Sanders, D-Selma, has called for a death penalty moratorium before. Republicans on the committee said they supported capital punishment, but still supported sending the bill to the full Senate for debate.
"I have some concerns about the long-term ramifications of the bill," said Sen. Phil Williams, R-Rainbow City. "I don't think it will pass." Still, he said, the matter was important enough to go to the full Senate.
Brewbaker said he was open to further amendments, but he also told committee members it was important to have another layer of review in place.
"We need to make sure the process is as good as we think it is," he said.