The most important of those issues are the streamlining of the death penalty appeals process and expanding the state’s definition of capital offenses.
The streamlining of death row appeals does not lessen the appeals for death row inmates, it just allows the two separate appeals processes to run concurrently instead of consecutively, cutting the time required for the appeals in half.
According to a press release from Strange’s office, following a capital conviction, there is a period of “direct appeals” in which the defendant may seek to overturn the conviction and death sentence. Afterward, the defendant may file a “Rule 32” petition for post-conviction relief to challenge the conviction and death sentence. Currently, defendants may wait until one year after the conclusion of direct appeals to their convictions and sentences before even beginning Rule 32 appeals of their sentences. The Fair Justice Act requires capital defendants to file Rule 32 petitions within 180 days of filing their first direct appeal. Capital defendants would receive better representation by having their claims considered earlier in the process, and indigent defendants would be appointed counsel for the Rule 32 petition within 30 days of being sentenced. Finally, the Fair Justice Act calls for a final decision by the circuit court on the Rule 32 petition within 180 days after the direct appeal is completed. This act will make the appellate process more efficient while both maintaining the same opportunities for court review and enhancing representation currently provided to death row defendants.
“What’s great about that is the defendant doesn’t lose any rights during the process,” Adair said. He explained the proposed changes would make Alabama’s process similar to the one used in Texas.
Strange is also asking for shootings of teachers or students at school or day care facility, the murder of anyone covered by a protection from abuse order or the murder of a family member of law enforcement of public official for the purposes of intimidation or retaliation a capital offense. It also makes murdering a law enforcement officer who is acting in the line of duty an aggravating circumstance in determining if the death penalty should be applied.
“Death penalty appeals in Alabama seem endless, with excessive delays that serve only to prolong pain and postpone justice for the victims of these heinous crimes,” Strange said in the release. “We are proposing fair and sensible changes to make the system work better for everyone. We also send a clear message that we will not tolerate the slaughter of our children at schools, with changes in the law that specify it is a capital crime to murder them and others who are particularly vulnerable.”
Strange is also backing bills to allow law enforcement an avenue to use legal wiretaps in cases involving murder, kidnapping, child pornography, human trafficking, sex offenses involving children under the age of 12 and felony drug offenses. Those wiretaps could only be in place for 30 days, with the option to extend them for another 30 days after the initial time elapses. Wiretaps are currently allowed in 43 other states for use in criminal cases.
The wiretaps would have to be approved by the district attorney or attorney general and the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals.
The Alabama Witness Safe Harbor Act will also be in Strange’s legislative package for this session. This allows prosecutors to grant immunity to witnesses in order to compel them to testify. Under the U.S. Constitution, witnesses have a right not to incriminate themselves, but if they are granted immunity they can be compelled to testify. Adair said this could be useful in cases when a prosecutor needs to use a “small fish” in a criminal case in order to land a more dangerous offender.
“As they currently stand, Alabama’s laws regarding wiretapping and witness immunity serve to tie the hands of law enforcement personnel and prosecutors, and may actually work for the benefit of criminals,” Strange said in the release. “This is simply wrong. We owe it to our law enforcement and prosecutors to give them the tools they need to be able to fulfill their duty to protect the people of Alabama and to fight those who would harm us.”
Adair said he was grateful Strange was fighting for these tools for prosecutors and law enforcement and for the benefit of victim’s families.