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Alabama Supreme Court orders new trial for death row inmate

By KIM CHANDLER,  Associated Press

MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) — The Alabama Supreme Court on Friday ordered a new trial for an Alabama death row inmate, ruling that he had an inadequate defense at his trial nearly two decades ago.

Justices in a 6-2 decision reinstated a lower court’s order granting a new trial to Emanuel Aaron Gissendanner because his defense counsel failed to do basic investigation to challenge the prosecution’s case at trial.

“This has been a long road for him when he never should have been convicted in the first place had he had a fair trial,” said Becca J. Wahlquist, a Los Angeles attorney who has been representing Gissendanner for the 11 years.

Gissendanner was convicted in the 2001 killing of 77-year-old Margaret Snellgrove in Dale County. Prosecutors argued that Gissendanner kidnapped and killed Snellgrove and then tried to cash one of her checks.

Dale County Circuit Judge Kenneth Quattlebaum, the judge who presided over the initial trial, ruled in 2010 that Gissendanner deserved a new trial.

Quattlebaum said defense attorneys didn’t do things like call alibi witnesses, consult a handwriting expert, or interview witnesses or review documents that could have undermined prosecution claims that Gissendanner lived in an abandoned trailer where Snellgrove’s belongings were found.

The judge said there was a “reasonable probability” the outcome of the trial would have been different if they had done so.

The Court of Criminal Appeals overturned Quattlebaum’s ruling, but the state Supreme Court reinstated the decision for a new trial Friday. Justices said the Court of Criminal Appeals applied the wrong standard of review and “deviated from precedent in failing to give Judge Quattlebaum’s findings of prejudicial ineffective assistance of counsel considerable weight,” since he presided over the trial.

“The most plausible defense Gissendanner had to the murder charges was an alibi defense,” Justice Mike Bolin wrote in the majority opinion. “Indeed, defense counsel argued in opening statements that Gissendanner had an alibi. However, defense counsel’s inadequate pretrial investigation resulted in a lack of information and an inability to present an adequate alibi defense,” Bolin wrote in the 60-page opinion.

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