Portion of AL's death penalty ruled unconstitutional

Published: Mar. 3, 2016 at 4:48 PM CST|Updated: Mar. 17, 2016 at 3:48 PM CDT
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Judge Tracie Todd. Source: Brandon Riggins/WBRC
Judge Tracie Todd. Source: Brandon Riggins/WBRC
Top L-R Harris, Lockhart; Bottom L-R McMillan, Woodward. (Source: AL DOC)
Top L-R Harris, Lockhart; Bottom L-R McMillan, Woodward. (Source: AL DOC)

JEFFERSON COUNTY, AL (WBRC) - The way Alabama decides the death penalty may have to change forever based on a groundbreaking court decision in Jefferson County on Thursday.

If the decisions stands, judges couldn't overrule juries and add the death penalty onto a sentence anymore.

Jefferson County circuit judge Tracie Todd barred the death penalty in the cases of four men charged in three murders.

[READ: Judge Todd's ruling on AL death penalty scheme]

The four defendants in court on Thursday were Kenny Billups, Stanley Chatman, Torrell McMullin and Benjamin Acton. They have all been charged with capital murder.

On Thursday, their attorneys argued that Alabama's death penalty sentencing scheme should not be valid in their cases because it's unconstitutional.

They pointed to the Hurst case in which the U.S. Supreme Court recently ruled Florida's sentencing scheme unconstitutional because a judge, not a jury, had the final say in whether the death penalty is imposed.

Florida is now overhauling the death penalty in a bid to resume executions, according to the AP.

The attorneys argued that Alabama's death penalty scheme mirrors Florida's and that allowing a judge to make the final determination of death violates defendants' Sixth Amendment rights.

Prosecutors argued that jury overrides was not what that Florida case was about.

But in the end, Judge Todd ruled the sentencing scheme unconstitutional, saying the influence of partisan politics in Alabama plays a huge role on jury overrides.

She said that Alabama has had more jury overrides than in Texas, a state that is five times larger that Alabama.

"We're happy she made the decision. Based upon the Hurst decision, we feel the statute is unconstitutional as far as the death penalty portion and hopefully in this building, other judges will adapt what she did," defense attorney Anthony Emory, who is Stanley Chatman's attorney, said.

"It's going to reach all across the state of Alabama because no judge wanted to make the decision and she made it and we're glad she made it," Emory added.

"It is politics. It's political. I've had judges I know were looking ahead to the next election and did an override. And that's absolutely unfair," Kenny Billups' attorney Charles Salvagio said.

"This has been going on too long, really. It has. Fundamental fairness…she used that many, many times and I think that's what it is," Salvagio said.

"The statistics that judge Todd quoted , the research that she did, I feel her decision is a landmark decision in Jefferson County and Alabama," Benjamin Acton's defense attorney Jacqueline Morrette sadi.

"I do not believe that Alabama's capital sentencing structure and procedures as set up violate Hurst and as such, would be unconstitutional.  That is going to be a decision made by the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals and Alabama Supreme Court and possibly go forward to the US Supreme Court," Jefferson County District Attorney Brandon Falls said.

"I really can't say in my experience that I've ever witnessed a judge make a decision based on politics, based on a belief that either the voting process or the process by which someone runs for office…I can't say I've ever seen that," Falls added.

"The scheme we're working under right now has been declared constitutional and that it has already withstood review.   And it will be reviewed again based on this case," Falls said.

The attorney general's office has seven days to appeal this to Alabama appellate court.

Based on that court's decision, this could potentially go up as far as the U.S. Supreme Court.

Attorney General Luther Strange gave the following comment on the ruling:

Judge Todd's ruling today is not a general pronouncement for the State of Alabama, but is strictly limited to the four cases upon which she ruled in the Jefferson County Circuit Court.  Alabama's capital sentencing statutes are constitutional.   Just yesterday the Alabama Supreme Court denied the appeal of a capital murder defendant who had filed a similar pre-trial motion, and the Court refused to declare Alabama's capital statute's unconstitutional. We are currently reviewing the Judge's written order, and expect to file an appeal.  We fully expect today's ruling by Judge Todd to be reversed.

There are four big cases in the Montgomery area where a judge overrode a jury's recommendation and imposed the death penalty.

In Montgomery County, Mario Woodward was convicted of killing MPD Officer Keith Houts in 2006. The jury recommended life in prison, but the judge overrode that recommendation and sentenced Woodward to death.

In Crenshaw County, Wesley Harris was convicted of killing six members of his girlfriend's family in 2002: a mom, dad, grandmother and three children. All were shot to death. The jury recommended life in prison without parole but the judge sentenced Harris to die by lethal injection.

In Lee County, Courtney Lockhart was convicted of killing Auburn University student Lauren Burk. The jury recommended life in prison without parole, but Judge Jacob Walker overrode and sentenced Lockhart to death. Judge Walker said he based the decision on evidence that was never brought before the jury.

In Elmore County, Calvin McMillan was convicted in the shooting death of Bryan Martin. It happened in 2007 in the Millbrook Walmart parking lot so McMillan could steal his truck. In this case, the jury recommended life without parole, but the judge overrode and sentenced McMillian to death.

"The victims in the Calvin McMillan case and any other case where a judge overrode a jury recommendation, I want them to know at this point and time you have nothing to worry about," said Randall Houston, Elmore County District Attorney.

"Until the Alabama Supreme Court speaks, nobody is going to do anything based on this case," Houston said.

"In light of the Hurst decision, I believe that there will be a significant impact and I'm encouraged for Courtney. Obviously that does not speak towards guilt or innocence, it speaks to the punishment," Terry Luck, Lockhart's attorney, said.

"I believe the U.S. Supreme Court is moving towards the opinion that judicial overrides of what jury recommends towards the death penalty is unconstitutional," Luck added.

District Attorney Randall Houston said when the Florida case was before the U.S. Supreme Court there were two other Alabama cases pending, including Lockhart's, and SCOTUS refused to review them.

WAFF and WSFA contributed to this report. Copyright 2016 WBRC. All rights reserved.