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Alabama changes rules regarding carrying out death sentences

Death Penalty Problems Explainer
Sue Ogrocki/AP
/
AP
FILE - This photo shows the gurney in the execution chamber at the Oklahoma State Penitentiary in McAlester, Okla., on Oct. 9, 2014. A scheduled execution in Alabama that was called off Thursday, Nov. 17, 2022, after prison officials could not find a suitable vein to inject the lethal drugs into is the latest in a long history of problems with lethal injections since Texas became the first state to use the execution method in 1982, including delays in finding usable veins. (AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki, File)

Alabama has changed death penalty procedures to give the prison system longer to carry out executions. The move comes after a string of troubled lethal injections in the state. Alabama is also eliminating an automatic review for trial errors. Governor Kay Ivey's office called the time window change a "win for justice" and supporters said the appeal change would ease the burden on the court system. A justice said the appeals change would relieve a burden on the court. Bryan Stevenson, founder of the non-profit Equal Justice Initiative, said he thought the combination of the two rules will increase the likelihood of wrongful convictions and cruel executions.

The Alabama Supreme Court announced the changes to appellate procedure last Friday. At Ivey's request, the court abolished the previous one-day time frame to carry out a death sentence. Instead, the governor will set a window of time for the execution. A divided court in a 6-3 decision also eliminated an automatic "plain error review" where the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals automatically reviews death penalty cases for a clear error at trial even though the defense lawyer did not object. Justices said judges on the appeals court may undertake the review, but are no longer required to do so.

Stevenson said that nearly 40% of the reversals in Alabama death penalty cases have come under the plain error review. He said the rule has been in place since the death penalty was reinstated in Alabama in 1976, and its repeal is "shocking."

Alabama Public Radio produced a national award-winning series on prison reform in the state. The list of topics included a now-overturned policy allowing judges to impose the death penalty, even after the jury recommended a life sentence.

Pat Duggins is news director for Alabama Public Radio.
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