A bill to create an Innocence Commission to review Alabama death penalty cases is on its last legs in the state Legislature, which ends its session this week.
If the bill fizzles, so does much of the chance for a retrial for Billy Kuenzel, the Goodwater man who still claims innocence in the 1987 murder that sent him to death row.
“I’m extremely disappointed,” said Sen. Dick Brewbaker, R-Montgomery, the bill’s sponsor. “I think the House chose to sit on this bill until it was killed by committee inaction.”
Brewbaker’s bill would have created a nine-member commission to review the convictions of death row inmates who make a claim of innocence and who can bring evidence that has never been heard in a court before.
From the outset, the bill seemed tailor-made to one inmate: Kuenzel, who was convicted in 1988 of the murder of Sylacauga convenience store clerk Linda Jean Offord.
Kuenzel was convicted on the testimony of a co-defendant, Harvey Venn, who told investigators he waited in a car while Kuenzel entered the store and shot Offord. The only other witness to place Kuenzel at the scene was a teen who said she spotted Kuenzel at the store while riding by in a passing car. Police found blood on Venn’s pants, but there was no physical evidence tying Kuenzel to the crime.
Kuenzel’s lawyers in 2010 found grand jury testimony in which the passer-by witness said she wasn’t sure who she saw at the store. Arguing that state law prohibits a murder conviction based solely on a co-defendant’s testimony, Kuenzel’s lawyers have tried to seek a retrial, but courts so far have rejected the case, largely because the inmate’s earlier legal team missed a filing deadline.
Days after the Alabama Supreme Court rejected Kuenzel’s most recent appeal, Brewbaker acknowledged on the Senate floor that his bill was inspired by Kuenzel’s case, and would allow him and perhaps one other inmate to have their cases reviewed. The Senate passed his bill 20-6.
A month later, with the legislative session set to end as early as Wednesday, the House Judiciary Committee has yet to act on the bill. The committee held an impromptu meeting Thursday night, but voted to carry the bill over to a future meeting. No such meeting has been scheduled so far.
Attempts to reach Judiciary Committee Chairman Rep. Mike Jones, R-Andalusia, since Friday were unsuccessful. A committee member, Rep. Chris England, D-Tuscaloosa, says Brewbaker himself called for the bill to be put on hold Thursday.
“It was carried over at the request of the sponsor,” England said. “I don’t know why; you’ll have to ask him.”
Brewbaker said he did stop pushing for the bill on Thursday, but only because the long delay in the House committee made it clear there was little chance of passage.
“With everything that is going to be happening on the House floor in the next couple of days, I didn’t see how this bill would make it,” Brewbaker said. “I didn’t want to get anyone’s hopes up.”
England said he supports the basic idea of the bill.
“I think it’s at least a good concept,” he said. “It may need some work, but we should do as much as we can to make sure people who are convicted are in fact guilty.”
He described the bill as “dead” after Thursday’s meeting.
A House staffer said the Judiciary Committee could meet with as little as four hours’ notice and still send bills to the full House on Tuesday. The bill would still have to pass other hurdles, including a vote in the powerful Rules Committee, before it reaches the House floor.
Kuenzel’s lawyers have repeatedly declined comment on the bill.
The Legislature reconvenes at 1 p.m. Tuesday.