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Ala. House approves death penalty legislation

The bill would require inmates to raise claims such as ineffective counsel at the same time as appeals claiming trial errors

By Kim Chandler 
Associated Press

MONTGOMERY, Ala. — Alabama would shorten the timeframe for death penalty appeals, under a bill approved Tuesday by the Alabama House of Representatives.

Representatives voted 74-26 for the bill that would pattern Alabama's process after the one used in Texas. It would require inmates to raise claims such as ineffective counsel at the same time as appeals claiming trial errors. Currently, inmates appeal trial errors first and then raise other issues.

Attorney General Steve Marshall praised passage of the bill, which sponsors titled the "Fair Justice Act." The bill has already passed in the Senate and now is expected to return to the Senate for that chamber's review of House changes to the measure.

"There is no doubt that Alabama's system for reviewing capital cases is inefficient and in need of repair. The average death row inmate appeal time is over 15 years and rising," Marshall said in a statement.

The American Bar Association and others objected to the bill, arguing it would diminish the ability to uncover mistakes in capital cases.

"It substantially increases the likelihood that an innocent person will be put to death," Rep. Chris England, D-Tuscaloosa, said.

The trial court will be required to appoint appellate counsel.

The bill returns to the Alabama Senate where senators will decide whether to go along with House changes.

State appeals in Alabama capital cases can take 15 to 18 years, said Sen. Cam Ward, R-Alabaster. That timeframe would drop to nine to 11 years under the proposal, Ward said.

Opponents noted the case of an Alabama inmate who was freed in 2015 after 30 years on death row.

Ray Hinton was convicted of murders at two 1985 fast food restaurant robberies in Birmingham. After the Equal Justice Initiative agreed to represent him in 1999, Hinton won a breakthrough when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled Hinton's trial defense was so deficient that it was unconstitutional. Prosecutors dropped plans for a second trial when three state forensic experts couldn't match crime scene bullets to the revolver taken from Hinton's home.

Ward argued that appeals might be resolved sooner by consolidating the process.

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