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Ainsworth: Bill would expedite death row appeals

By MARY SELL, Alabama Daily News

Alabama Lt. Gov. Will Ainsworth wants to change the state’s years-long — sometimes decades-long —  appeals process for death row inmates.

Ainsworth said he wants a “fair but expedited process” that will deter people from committing murders punishable by death. A press conference is planned Tuesday morning to discuss the bill that will be filed later today.

Ainsworth talked with Alabama Daily News about the bill Monday.

At first, he was looking for a way to better protect Alabama law enforcement officers. Seven officers have been killed in just more than a year. However, the bill that will be filed will apply to all capital murder cases.

“The goal is to deter anyone from harming or using deadly force with any law enforcement officer, and more so than that, any person,” Ainsworth said.

Currently, death row inmates appeal to the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals, and then the Alabama Supreme Court. Often, their cases also are appealed to federal courts.

Ainsworth wants state appeals to end at the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals, removing the state supreme court.

A draft of the bill also calls for the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals to prioritize and expedite death row cases.

The bill is similar to current law in another state.

“In Texas, your appeal process stops at the Court of Criminal Appeals. Thats what this bill would do,” Ainsworth said.

According to Alabama Department of Corrections’ records, there are 175 inmates on death row. Sixty-seven of them have been there more than 20 years.

One of them is Gregory Hunt, who murdered Karen Sanders Lane in 1988 in Walker County.

“He parents have passed away, and her sister is valiantly waiting for justice,” said Rep. Connie Rowe, R-Jasper. She’ll be sponsoring the bill in the House. Rowe has nearly 30 years of law enforcement experience, starting as a patrol officer in the mid-1980s and retiring as Jasper police chief in 2014.

“I’ve seen how long this road is,” Rowe said about the death penalty appeal process in Alabama.

Capital murder, in which the death penalty is allowed, applies to about 20 offenses in Alabama, including:

  • Murder during a kidnapping in the first degree;
  • Murder during a robbery in the first degree;
  • Murder during a rape in the first or second degree;
  • Murder of any law enforcement officer;
  • Murder when the victim is less than fourteen years of age.

Rowe said she thinks a shortened appeals timeline will be a deterrent in capital crimes.

“Anything we can do to deter people from killing people at that level is absolutely something I feel good about,” she said.

The bill raises concern for some lawmakers about making sure the correct person is sentenced to death. According to the Montgomery-based Equal Justice Initiative, nine men on Alabama’s death row were later exonerated.

“I don’t know how the process is going to take into account that phase of review to see if that person is actually the person who committed that crime,” Sen. Rodger Smitherman, D-Birmingham said.

“We have to make sure that we actually have the person that has actually committed the offense,” Smitherman said

Sen. Cam Ward, R-Alabaster, will sponsor the bill in the Senate.

Alabama Daily News reporter Devin Pavlou contributed to this report.

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