Birmingham Criminal Defense Blog

Man Freed From Alabama Death Row

Posted in Alabama Criminal Appeals

In the past few years, we have seen a variety of news sources report about problems in crime labs and wrongful convictions.  According to a recent news article from the Washington Post, a man has been released from Alabama’s death row after spending over 30 years there, awaiting his execution.

Defendant was convicted in relation to the murder of two workers at a Birmingham, Alabama restaurant in 1985.  There were no witnesses to the murders, no fingerprints connecting defendant to the crime scene, nor was there any other physical evidence tying defendant to the murders. The only evidence of defendant’s alleged participation in these murders was ammunition and a gun located in defendant’s home, which was questionably used to connect defendant to the murders.

For the past 30 years, defendant has protested his conviction and maintained his innocence, while his attorneys have questioned the link between the gun and the murder.  It should also be noted, his mother owned the gun at issue in this case.

These doubts as to whether this gun was involved in the crime were increased when scientific ballistics testing also revealed issues in making a connection.  There was also an issue as to whether the bullets used in the murder were even fired from a single gun Continue Reading

Update: University of Alabama Crimson Tide Defense Tackle Jonathan Taylor Charged with Domestic Violence

Posted in Assault Charges

According to a recent news article from USA Today, University of Alabama Crimson Tide defensive tackle has been arrested and charged with domestic violence III, according to Tuscaloosa police officials.

Police say they responded to an assist request from University of Alabama police in connection with an alleged victim who reported her boyfriend had assaulted her earlier that evening.  Her boyfriend was Jonathan Taylor.  After hearing about the alleged altercations between Taylor and his girlfriend, police determined they had probable cause to arrest him for third degree assault as well as domestic violence third degree criminal mischief. Continue Reading

Alabama State Senate Passes Plan to Reduce Number of Prison Inmates

Posted in Alabama Drug Laws, Possession of Controlled Substance, Possession of Marijuana

Across the nation, there is a major problem with overcrowding in prisons. Alabama is by no means an exception to this problem, as Alabama’s particularly harsh sentencing laws can send people to state prison for extremely long periods of time, even when the severity of the crime does not warrant such a lengthy sentence.

According to a recent news report from AL.com, the Alabama state senate has just approved a plan to decrease the prison population by reducing the punishment for certain criminal offenses.   As our Birmingham criminal defense lawyers can explain, the Alabama state criminal code classifies crimes in various categories according to the perceived severity of the offense alleged.

The new bill is designed to reduce penalties for various nonviolent property crimes and drug charges. The bill is also designed to expand the probation, parole, and community corrections programs, so that more people are eligible for diversion programs rather than going to state prison. Continue Reading

Man Charged with Theft of $125,000 in Alabama

Posted in White Collar Crime

White collar crime is handled differently than other types of criminal charges, because the evidence often revolves around documents and other financial records, rather than witness testimony.

According to a recent news article from AL.com, police arrested a 55-year-old defendant on charges of identity theft and financial exploitation of an elderly person.  He is alleged to have stolen $125,000 from an 80-year-old family member.

Prosecutors say, for over two years he forged complaining witness’s checks and used her credit card without her knowledge.  The alleged victim claims to have no knowledge defendant was using her bank account or credit cards, according to authorities.  Police reported that they have identified almost 90 separate checks that were either forged and cashed or forged and deposited into defendant’s bank account. Continue Reading

DNA Evidence From 2011 Results In Alabama Home Invasion Arrest

Posted in Alabama Violent Crimes

It’s been four years since someone reportedly broke into the home where a 66-year-old man and his 58-year-old wife were sleeping and attempted to rob them, exchanging gunfire in the process. brokenwindow

Now, authorities say they have gotten a break in the case in the form of DNA evidence.

According to authorities, the homeowners were startled awake by the alarm on their home security system. When they got up to shut off the alarm, there were voices coming from the kitchen. The husband grabbed his handgun and encountered two men in his home, one allegedly armed with a rifle.

Bullets were fired by both the homeowner and intruders, with the latter soon fleeing through the window they had broken to gain entry into the home. The residents then called 911 and the husband at that time realized he’d been struck by a bullet fragment. He was treated at a local hospital and soon after released.

It doesn’t appear either of the intruders were struck by a bullet, but what led authorities to them was the method of entry. Or rather, the blood that was left near the window when the pair allegedly broke the glass to gain entry. Initially when that blood was tested for a match back in 2012, no matches were returned.

However, that changed last summer when detectives on the case got word that a man recently convicted of an unrelated crime for which he was incarcerated matched the DNA profile of the earlier home invasion. A court order allowed for a second sample to be tested.

Meanwhile, suspect denied any involvement in the alleged crime.

Authorities later were told the DNA of that individual was a match to the older crime scene. He was already serving 15 years for unrelated assault and drug charges. He’s now facing charges of attempted murder and burglary.

Investigators then boasted about how valuable DNA evidence can be, even in older cases.

However, it’s worth noting that forensic evidence isn’t always the gold standard authorities make it out to be. Our criminal defense lawyers in Birmingham would note it was only last year that the U.S. Department of Justice and the National Institute of Standards and Technology formed the very first nationwide commission on forensic science. The group, comprised of 37 attorneys, forensic practitioners, police and scientists have only begun to formulate uniform national standards for things like forensic training and certification.

The National Research Council in 2009 issued a scathing report that was highly critical of forensic practices in the U.S. – everything from hair sampling methods to bite mark analysis to arson investigation – was greatly unreliable. Testing results returned far too much variability to be useful in criminal cases, when so much is at stake.

Further, the agency reported that just 60 percent of crime labs that are publicly funded have a certified examiner on staff.

Discrepancies continue to exist among the standards set by federal, state and individual private labs – all of which are utilized by law enforcement agencies. Just as one example, the FBI requires DNA matches analyze 13 specific base-pair locations from each sample. But it was recently revealed a large police department in Northern California used a low-quality DNA sample that was 30 years old and only compared 5 base-pair locations. This evidence was used in at least one murder trial, and a conviction was obtained.

The bottom line is just because authorities call it science doesn’t mean it’s full proof, or that legitimate challenges can’t be made.

Additional Resources:

DNA brings arrest in 2011 McCalla home invasion, March 19, 2015, By Carol Robinson, AL.com

More Blog Entries:

U.S. v. Carter – Federal Appeal for Sex Offenses Fails to Alter Conviction, Sentence, March 15, 2015, Alabama Criminal Defense Lawyer Blog

Fatal DUI Convict Extradited to Alabama From Thailand After Years on the Run

Posted in Birmingham DUI

More than five years after fleeing the country upon her conviction for a fatal Alabama DUI crash, a longtime fugitive was discovered in Thailand and has since been returned to U.S. soil. She was deported, according to the U.S. Marshals Service, escorted on a plane to California and is awaiting extradition to Alabama. barbedwire1

Now 36, the woman was with her 2-month-old son at the time of her arrest in February by police in Phuket. Authorities had reportedly been watching her for a month.

According to reports, the woman was 26 at the time of the fatal crash. Authorities say she was drunk when she was driving alone I-459 in Hoover shortly after midnight one morning in 2004. The victim, a truck driver, was parked in the right emergency lane, near a bridge, and was examining his tires. Defendant reportedly struck the truck first and then the man.

Defendant was arrested the same day for DUI, posted $1,000 bond and was released. However a year later, she was indicted on a charge of vehicular homicide. She was arrested again and required to pay a $10,000 bond prior to release. She was slated for trial in early 2007, but instead pleaded guilty. Her attorney pressed for probation, but the court instead handed down a sentence of five years.

Our Birmingham DUI defense lawyers know that Alabama Code section 32-5A-192, which covers the definition and penalties for homicide by vehicle, requires between one and five years of imprisonment. Criminally negligent homicide (often charged in DUI-related fatal crashes), meanwhile, is codified in 13A-6-4 and carries a minimum mandatory sentence of one year and one day and a maximum penalty of up to 10 years in prison.

In this case, trial court allowed defendant to post $50,000 bond so she could be free pending her appeal. However, rather than wait for the outcome of that appeal, defendant fled the country. In 2010, she was officially declared a fugitive.

Last year, USA Today completed an in-depth report on the fact that many police agencies are failing to track down fugitives who simply cross state borders – even felony fugitives. Reporters detailed how across the U.S., law enforcement agencies and prosecutors were allowing some 3,000 individuals accused of serious crimes – such as rape, robbery and even murder – to evade justice simply by traveling across state lines.

Prosecutors and police blame limited resources, high costs and red tape.

In analyzing the FBI database used to follow developments on outstanding warrants, police indicated in 187,000 cases, they would not spend the time or expenses to retrieve a fugitive from another state. In another 80,000 cases, authorities indicated they would only be willing to extradite a person from a neighboring state. In some of the highest-crime cities in the country – Little Rock, Atlanta and Philadelphia – authorities told the FBI they would not pursue 9 out of 10 of their felony suspects across state lines.

But fugitives from Alabama should beware: This is not a get-out-of-jail-free card. While the U.S. average for refusal to extradite was 16 percent, in Alabama it’s 0 percent. That’s as of May 2013. That means that of the 352 outstanding warrants authorized by the Alabama Department of Corrections, authorities have not given up on extradition of a single case. Of the 1,377 outstanding warrants issued by the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office, not a single one is subject to non-extradition.

What this means is that if you are facing serious charges in Alabama, authorities from Alabama will look for you, and they will bring you back once you are find. In most cases, you will face additional charges.

The best way to secure a reduced sentenced or charges is to hire an experienced criminal defense lawyer.

Additional Resources:

Alabama fugitive Kelly Lynn Miller back in U.S. after deportation from Thailand, March 20, 2015, By Carol Robinson, AL.com

More Blog Entries:

Facebook Post Arrest Results in Alabama Arrest for Terrorist Threat, March 17, 2015, Birmingham Criminal Defense Lawyer Blog

 

U.S. Supreme Court to Weigh Retroactivity of Miller v. Alabama

Posted in Alabama Criminal Appeals, Alabama Criminal Law, Alabama Murder Laws

Three years ago, the U.S. Supreme Court tackled the issue of lifelong prison sentences for juvenile offenders in Miller v. Alabama, ultimately ruled mandatory sentences of life without parole for juvenile killers is unconstitutional. This was in addition to previous rulings forbidding death sentences and life sentences without parole for non-homicide offenses committed by youths.prison5

What the court did not address was whether the Miller decision should be applied retroactively to old cases. In the years since, courts across the country have reached conflicting decisions about it. The Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals has ruled it should not be applied to older cases. However, other state courts, including most recently the Florida Supreme Court, has ruled that it should.

Now, the U.S. Supreme court has ruled it will take on the issue, which could affect approximately 80 prisoners in Alabama.

If it were applied retroactively, it would mean new trials, at least for the sentencing phase, for juveniles serving life in prison without parole for crimes they committed in juveniles.

AL.com reports there are 28 states in which juveniles who were 17 or younger at the time of their alleged crimes required automatic sentences of life without the possibility of parole.

The U.S. Supreme Court has granted a request for certiorari (review) on a case out of Louisiana to determine whether the Miller ruling should be applied to old criminal cases.

Our Birmingham criminal defense lawyers know that mandatory minimum sentencing in general – whether for juveniles or adults, homicide or drug crimes – deprive trial court judges of discretion where it would be prudent and the circumstances warrant.

In the Louisiana case being appealed, defendant is serving a mandatory life sentence for the murder of a deputy sheriff committed when defendant was 17. That was back in 1963. The state courts have all denied his motions for review in accordance with the Miller verdict, but now, the U.S. Supreme Court will take on the issue.

The court could decide directly on the issue of retroactivity, setting a precedent for all courts in the country, or it could decide the final say should be left with the states.

In Alabama, although the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals ruled the court’s finding in Miller isn’t retroactive, that could still change. There is at least one case pending review by the Alabama Supreme Court on this very issue.

Since the ruling was issued in 2012, there have been several dozen incarcerated felons serving life sentences without parole who have requested the state afford them the opportunity to seek parole, considering their youthful age the time of the underlying offense.

Although prosecutors have unsurprisingly argued against retroactive application, their primary argument against such a ruling is that it would require the court to have a re-sentencing for each prisoner, and to hold hearings as to potential mitigating circumstances for each defendant in order to make the final determination. But of course, this is what justice is all about.

The courts have well established that juveniles must be held to a different standard than adults in the criminal justice system. Even when they are tried as adults for serious crimes, the reality is they were not adults at the time of the alleged actions. Therefore, they should not be held to the same adult standards.

A ruling in favor of the Louisiana inmate would not mean the prison doors would suddenly swing open for those affected. Rather, it would afford them the opportunity to make a case for why they should someday be set free.

Additional Resources:

Miller v. Alabama, June 25, 2012, U.S. Supreme Court

More Blog Entries:

Alabama Prison Reform Could Alter Sentencing, Parole, March 19, 2015, Birmingham Criminal Defense Attorney Blog

Dickerson v. Alabama – Robbery Conviction Reversed by Alabama Appeals Court

Posted in Alabama Criminal Appeals

The Sixth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution guarantees that in all criminal prosecutions, the accused has the right to an attorney to aid in his or her defense. This point was underscored in the 1962 case of Gideon v. Wainwright, in which the U.S. Supreme court held legal representation is vital to the protection of fundamental rights of life and liberty of someone accused in a criminal matter. glock23

This is why if a defendant is unable to afford one, the court is compelled to appoint one.

The fact is, governments spend vast amounts of money for the purposes of arresting, prosecuting, convicting and incarcerating defendants. The end goal is to protect the public interest in an orderly society.

But this is exactly why criminal defendants must hire the best Birmingham criminal defense lawyer they can. Defendants are going to be up against prosecutors who are highly experienced, well compensated and passionate. In order for a defense to be effective, your criminal defense attorney’s skill and dedication needs to be at least evenly matched. In our justice system, we like to believe it’s the truth that will set you free. But the reality is, it’s usually good lawyer.

That said, some people truly are unable to afford it, and in those cases, the court must appoint someone. The court doesn’t guarantee that the appointed counsel will be anyone with extensive experience, but you should at minimum receive someone who is competent and who ensures your due process rights are respected.

In the case of Dickerson v. Alabama, the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals ruled this did not happen.

Defendant was accused and later convicted of first-degree robbery of a gas station/convenience store, and sentenced to 40 years in prison.

The underlying incident involved an armed confrontation with the owner of the store, in which gunfire was briefly exchanged. No one was injured, but defendant was arrested several days later. He was indicted, found indigent and the court appointed a defense attorney to represent him. However, he did not appear for his arraignment. Two days later, his court-appointed counsel asked to withdraw, noting he’d been unable to contact defendant for at least a month. Initially, no action was taken, but the trial was scheduled for a year later. Two weeks before trial, the court granted the attorney’s motion to withdraw.

When defendant failed to appear for trial, the court issued an arrest warrant. He was arrested and taken into custody a year later, and he remained imprisoned until his trial. In May 2014, defendant filed a notice of indigence, indicating he had no income or assets, and requested the court provide him with an attorney. The court denied the request by simply declaring defendant wasn’t indigent.

As soon as the trial began, a pro bono attorney stepped forward to request the circuit court reconsider the decision not to appoint counsel. The lawyer noted defendant was facing 10 years to life imprisonment if convicted, and based on the serious nature of the allegations, the law required the court to appoint a lawyer. The attorney indicated he knew defendant personally and knew he had no money or assets.

The judge countered the defendant was “able-bodied,” “capable of work” and “intelligent,” and that he’d had enough time and opportunity make payment arrangements with a private lawyer. The attorney noted defendant had been incarcerated for more than year by the time he was facing trial.

In response, the judge responded defendant “may be indigent,” but that he had chosen not to work during his life. The judge went on to say defendant had been given many chances, but the trial would continue as planned. A standby attorney was appointed to advice defendant of the procedural process, but he was not allowed to offer defendant advice on how to try the case.

Defendant was convicted.

On appeal, defendant asserted violation of his Sixth Amendment rights. The Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals agreed, reversed and remanded. The court noted in addition to the U.S. Constitution, Rule 6.1 Ala. R. Crim. P. affords criminal defendants the right to counsel.

Justices on appeal noted there was nothing on record to dispute defendant’s claim of indigence, and trial court even conceded he “may be indigent.” The court didn’t reference defendant’s own income or assets, but rather his family’s ability to pay for a lawyer and his own ability to work. But defendant’s family had no legal responsibility to pay for his defense, and his physical ability to work didn’t make him able to pay for his defense.

Thus, the court abused its discretion in denying appointment of a lawyer.

Additional Resources:

Dickerson v. Alabama, March 13, 2015, Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals

More Blog Entries:

Ex parte H. Whited – Alabama Supreme Court Reverses Sex Crime Conviction, March 21, 2015, Birmingham Criminal Defense Lawyer Blog

Ex parte H. Whited – Alabama Supreme Court Reverses Sex Crime Conviction

Posted in Sex Crimes

The Alabama Supreme Court has ordered a new trial for a man convicted and sentenced to 35 years on a sex crime offense. The court ruled there was a reasonable probability the result of the first trial would have been different had his defense counsel not committed serious error on a number of fronts. dispair

It’s important to note the standard to prove ineffective assistance of counsel following a criminal conviction is a high one. The 1984 U.S. Supreme Court decision of Strickland v. Washington, cautioned courts must indulge a strong presumption that an attorney’s conduct falls within the range of reasonable professional assistance because the harsh light of hindsight can make it too easy to conclude error.

Even when a lawyer’s performance is deemed deficient, no relief is to be granted unless there is reasonable probability that but for those mistakes, the outcome of the proceeding would have been different.

In the case of Ex parte H. Whited, defendant argued his defense lawyer improperly waived a closing argument – following an impassioned closing argument from the prosecutor.

In and of itself, the decision of a trial counsel to waive a closing argument isn’t considered ineffective counsel (per the 2004 Alabama Court of Appeals decision in Young v. State).

On appeal in this case, the appellate court in a split decision found that while defendant made a compelling argument that his attorney used poor judgment in waiving the closing argument, he’d failed to affirmatively prove he’d suffered prejudice as a result of that decision, or that it potentially affected the outcome of the trial.

However, the state supreme court reversed.

According to court records, this case involved the sexual assault of a teenage girl who was the daughter of defendant’s longtime friend. A neighbor reported to police that on a particular night several years ago, he heard sounds that would seem to indicate the girl was under extreme distress and pain. He said he’d heard similar noises before, but did not report them until now.

When police investigated, the girl told them she had been sexually victimized by her father for years, but that on that particular night in question, two other men participated as well – one being defendant.

While defendant conceded to knowing the girl, he denied he was there on the night in question. Further, he had three witness alibis who testified he was at the home of his uncle on the night in question because he’d injured his back earlier in the day while mowing the neighbor’s yard.

Initially, when his defense attorney was questioned as to why he gave no closing argument, the attorney could not provide a clear answer. He said his memory on the case was diminished because his wife had died suddenly a short time after trial concluded. He didn’t recall discussing the decision to waive the closing argument with defendant. The appellate court surmised the waiver was likely part of a trial strategy to prevent the prosecutor from further underscoring other specific evidence in rebuttal.

Defendant argued to state supreme court that appellate court erred in finding counsel’s choice to waive the closing argument was a “trial strategy.” Further, he alleged the appellate court didn’t fully consider the waiver in light of prosecutor’s strong argument and lastly, the appellate court failed to consider the strong arguments against guilt available to defendant.

Supreme Court agreed the attorney’s lack of an explanation as to why closing argument was waived or even at what point in the trial the decision was made distinguished it from other cases. Further, there were a number of strong arguments available to defendant to refute his guilt. There was no physical evidence. The only evidence the state had directly linking defendant to the crime was victim’s testimony. However, victim’s testimony was inconsistent on a number of points.

The fact that these strong arguments against guilt were not underscored in a closing argument, the supreme court found, bolstered defendant’s request for a new trial, which was granted.

It is imperative that defendants facing felony charges seek counsel from an experienced, capable criminal defense attorney – particularly for sex crime cases that are highly charged with emotion. The stakes are simply too high to do otherwise.

Additional Resources:

Ex parte H. Whited, Feb. 6, 2015, Alabama Supreme Court

More Blog Entries:

Alabama v. Hendrix – Dismissal of Vehicular Manslaughter Charges Affirmed, Feb. 26, 2015, Birmingham Criminal Defense Lawyer Blog

Alabama Prison Reform Could Alter Sentencing, Parole

Posted in Alabama Criminal Law

State officials in Alabama must address serious and widespread issues plaguing its prisons, or else the federal government has indicated it will intercede – and soon. prison4

Primarily, the problem is overcrowding, stemming from decades-old policies that involve harsh minimum mandatory sentences for non-violent offenders – particularly those convicted of drug offenses. Beyond that, state prisons are breeding grounds for abuse and maltreatment. The U.S. Department of Justice has referenced some 20 cases in which staff members engaged in sexual conduct with prisoners at the Julia Tutwiler Prison for Women.

In its January letter threatening a federal lawsuit and intervention, the justice department characterized staffing and supervision levels as “catastrophically low.” Alabama is the No. 1 worst state in the nation in terms of space, with lock-up facilities at roughly double capacity. While the state population rose by 23 percent since 1977, the state’s prison population climbed by 840 percent.

It can’t stay this way. Action will come one way or the other. Either Alabama officials will implement swift and meaningful reform, or the federal government will make it happen. Consider that in California three years ago, federal courts forced the state to free some 30,000 prisoners due to overcrowding.

There are competing ideas for how the tackle the problem. As our Birmingham criminal defense lawyers understand it, there are one of two basic outcomes: Either taxes are raised and we expand on the current system, or we change the way we sentence and supervise non-violent offenders.

The latter could prove a benefit to those facing criminal charges, but it’s not a given. Defendants in Alabama still face some of the highest conviction rates and the harshest sentencing, so it remains imperative to seek experienced legal counsel.

A bill is currently pending that would allocate $35 million every year for four years to alter sentencing and probation/parole practices. However, the plan would also create new prison beds and add more parole officers. The intended result would be a prison population reduction of 4,500 prisoners, which would reduce the capacity from 192 percent to 140 percent. If that is actually accomplished, it would be the fastest reduction of prison population the country has ever seen.

But the plan may not be completely realistic. The state right now is grappling with a budget crisis. Where that $35 million will come from isn’t clear. However, if the state were to try to simply build more prisons and add more guards – with no focus on sentence reduction – it would cost an estimated $650 million. What’s more, it wouldn’t do anything to stem the increasing tide of new prisoners.

Should the federal government intercede, it could order a mass release of prisoners or the immediate implementation of a massive construction project.

Drug and property crimes account for two-thirds of all prison sentences, with the average inmate spending twice as long in prison compared to the national average due to minimum mandatory sentencing. What’s more, probation and parole violations account for about 40 percent of all state prison admissions.

The new measure would create a new class of felony – Class D. The new class would no longer label certain theft and property crimes as “violent,” thus removing the mandated prison sentence. Further, parole and probation officers would receive additional training. Technical violations would result in an immediate – but short – jail stay, instead of waiting for months to go to a prison that doesn’t have room for them.

These changes could benefit Alabama defendants, but they won’t negate the need for experienced legal representation for those facing criminal charges.

Additional Resources:

Fix Alabama prisons now or the federal court will, March 4, 2015, AL.com Editorial Board

More Blog Entries:

Alabama v. Baker – Post-Conviction Relief in Alabama, March 5, 2015, Birmingham Criminal Defense Attorney Blog

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