Alabama State House

Alabama State House in Montgomery. (Bill Wilson / The Anniston Star)

Tommy Arthur, the inmate set to die by lethal injection Thursday night, was first sentenced to death in 1983.

A bill on Gov. Kay Ivey’s desk could prevent future inmates from repeating Arthur’s decades-long stay on death row, its supporters say. Opponents of the bill say justice is necessarily a slow process, one that would be endangered if the bill becomes law.

“When you put specific timelines on justice you don’t get justice, you get sped-up executions,” said Frank Knaack, executive director of the Montgomery-based Alabama Appleseed Center for Law and Justice.

The Fair Justice Act, or SB 187, states that post-conviction remedies filed under Rule 32 of the Alabama Rules of Criminal Procedure must be pursued concurrently and simultaneously as direct appeals to the original case. Death row inmates who appeal their convictions under Rule 32 must file their appeals in Alabama Circuit Court within one year of the initial filing for their direct appeal to the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals. That means the inmates could have two active cases in two different courts at the same time.

Knaack said he is worried this bill will undermine justice in Alabama.

During Rule 32 post-conviction appeals, new attorneys can argue  that their client’s original lawyers or their lawyers in direct appeals were ineffective, or that changes in the law apply to their case, or introduce new evidence, Knaack said.

The act would create issues in post-conviction appeals when attorneys argue their clients’ other lawyers are ineffective in direct appeals, because the direct appeals cases would be happening at the same time, Knaack said.

“Other states are moving away from the unitary appeals process and Alabama is moving towards it,” Knaack said.

The act would require defendants to file post-conviction appeals under Rule 32 within one year of the first filling in the defendant's direct appeal.

The executive director of the Alabama District Attorneys Associate, Barry Matson, said the bill would not limit the number of appeals for any defendant convicted of capital murder.

“I  know there are folks saying this is a rush, but every one of the overturned cases that they cite happened in a Rule 32 appeal,” said Matson.

Matson said attorneys who drag out appeals for 25 to 30 years are pursuing a specific strategy.

“If their client is truly innocent, then they ought to be screaming from the courthouse that they need a trial sooner,” Matson said.  

Randy Susskind, deputy director of the Montgomery-based Equal Justice Initiative, a group that says it works to end mass incarceration and excessive punishment, hopes Ivey won’t sign the measure.

“This bill will undermine the reliability of sentences and convictions,” Susskind said.

Sen. Cam Ward, R-Alabaster, introduced the bill in the Senate. He said Alabama has a longer appeal process than most states. The average Alabama death penalty appeal is 15 to 20 years, when the national average is nine to 12 years, Ward said.

“At the end of the day, victims’ family have to relive it every time it comes up for appeal,” Ward said.

Ward said that with all the focus on those convicted the discussion about the victims and their families gets lost. Organizations like the EJI and the Southern Poverty Law Center are opposed to death penalty, he said, and they are opposed to anything that will expedite the process, Ward said.

According to Ward, versions of the bill have come up every session for the past 10 years. This year was its year, Ward said.

As of Wednesday afternoon Ivey had not signed the bill, according to the governor’s office.