Clearing your name: How Alabama law allows accusations to follow innocent people
BIRMINGHAM, AL (WBRC) - Charles Debruce knows he's a blessed man. He enjoys spending time with family, especially his toddler son, "little Charles," and his girlfriend, Nataya Bailey. Debruce counts his blessings, because he could have been sent to Alabama's death row.
Debruce, 39, was arrested, charged and tried for capital murder in 2014, but a Jefferson County jury found him not guilty. Debruce maintained that the 2012 fatal shooting in Birmingham was an act of self-defense, and the jury believed him. He was acquitted of all charges, including capital murder, attempted murder and shooting into an occupied dwelling.
Charles Debruce with son and girlfriend, Nataya Bailey
He walked out of jail a free man, but the murder arrest continues to follow him. Alabama law limits the types of crimes that can be expunged from an innocent person's record. For Debruce, that means every background check turns up his arrest for murder, even though a jury of his peers already determined he was innocent of the crime.
"Right now it's really difficult," said Debruce. "I just want to move on with my life."
I just want to move on with my life.
Before Debruce was arrested, he had never been in trouble with the law. He worked as a security guard, but since his acquittal, he hasn't been able to get a job to support his family.
"I've applied for several jobs, I even tried to go back to my old security company and they followed my case. They still turned me down," he said.
Debruce has also run into trouble finding a place to live. His girlfriend said a family friend agreed to rent them a house, but for a while, they had to live in a hotel.
Alabama's expungement law, passed in 2014, only allows nonviolent criminal charges to be removed from a person's record. That means arrests for violent felonies like murder, manslaughter, rape, robbery and burglary remain on a person's record and are turned up by background checks, even when that person is found not guilty by a jury.
Roger Appell meets with Charles Debruce and family
Defense attorney Roger Appell said the exception for violent offenses hurts innocent people. Appell represented Debruce at his criminal trial and said he's a good example of why the expungement law needs to be revisited.
"It makes absolutely no sense," said Appell. "The fact that he was innocent of the charges is all that should matter."
Debruce is trying to make his own luck. He hopes to make money by working as a wholesale car dealer, but the fee to get licensed is $3000. In the meantime, he does side work, painting houses with his father and cares for his son, while his girlfriend works full time. Charles junior was born after his father's acquittal, and to Debruce, his young son represents a new beginning after he almost lost everything.
"Every day I wake up and look at him, and it just keeps me going," he said with a smile.
The incident from July 2012 began when Debruce said he wanted to talk out a disagreement with a man that worked for him. Debruce said he went to the man's East Lake house on a Sunday and was talking to the man in front of the house, when shots were fired at him. Witnesses said William Evans, the father of the man Debruce was talking to, fired the shots at Debruce. By the time he realized he'd been shot in the hip, Debruce said he heard more gunshots.
"And I hit the ground, started to crawl back to my vehicle, that's when I retrieved my weapon and returned fire," Debruce said.
Evans, the 63-year-old man who shot Debruce, was killed and his wife was wounded. Debruce said he regretted the fatality, but had to defend himself. Police and prosecutors didn't see it that way, but a Jefferson County jury eventually did after Debruce took the stand and testified in his own defense.
If the shooting was an act of self-defense, why was Debruce arrested? Appell said because Debruce was also shot, he was unable to give a coherent statement to police about what happened.
"There were other people in the house who were drinking, and they told police that Charles had fired the fatal shot," said Appell.
Debruce said he tried to drive away from the scene, but called his sister for help, who rushed him to the hospital. He was treated for the gunshot wound and released, only to immediately be arrested by police.
Debruce said he was still drugged up and didn't fully realize what was going on until the next day, when he woke up in a jail cell. A judge denied bond, so Debruce remained in the Jefferson County jail for 22 months until his trial, not exactly the ideal environment to recover from a gunshot wound.
"It was more than a nightmare," Debruce said.
"I couldn't walk on my left leg for a while. I got my wheelchair taken, no pain meds after about a week. So the majority of the time I had to heal naturally. Any type of therapy I needed, I had to do it myself," he said.
Debruce's parents supported him throughout the ordeal, but he said it was hard on them. At one point, his mother was so worried, she stopped eating. Debruce stayed close to the jail's minister, attending prayer calls and bible study, and found unexpected support from a few fellow inmates, who helped him keep his spirits up.
It was more than a nightmare.
"There's some people in there for really bad crimes, but you've got a few out of the bunch that are really good guys," he said.
By the time Debruce's case went to trial in 2014, he was ready to set the record straight. He knew he would lose everything if convicted, so he did not hesitate to take the stand in his own defense.
"I wasn't really worried about it, because I was always ready to get on the stand and tell my side," Debruce said.
While the jury deliberated, Debruce said he was a nervous wreck, and silently recited Psalm 23 over and over to calm himself down. When he heard the verdict of not guilty, he felt "weak in the knees," but was overjoyed that the jury believed him. He was released from custody less than an hour after the verdict, and walked out of jail into the arms of his family.
"It felt so good just to know I was going home to my family," Debruce said. "I'm glad I got a chance to have a fair trial. A lot of people haven't had that chance."
Appell thinks no offense should be excluded from expungement, as long as the person was found innocent. He said he's represented at least a dozen clients over the last five years that have been negatively impacted by the law's limitations. There could be hundreds of similar cases in Alabama involving people who were never convicted, but cannot shake the arrest from their record.
"If someone was innocent, why should that follow them for the rest of their lives?" said Appell.
"If someone was innocent, why should that follow them for the rest of their lives?" - Roger Appell
Debruce echoed Appell's belief that an innocent person should be able to wipe any false accusation off their record, no matter how serious the charge. He decided to share his story, along with the wish he carries for anyone who is found not guilty.
"That people who have been acquitted can get their records expunged and move on with their lives," he said.
Do you have a prior arrest that cannot be expunged under Alabama law? If so, we want to hear from you. Send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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