Gary Drinkard said he was surprised by legislation Alabama Attorney General Luther Strange proposed at a joint meeting of the state House and Senate Judiciary Committees in Montgomery Nov. 1. Strange, with the support of state prosecutors, will ask the legislature to consider a bill to speed up the death penalty appeals process when it convenes in January.
According to reports, Strange told the group Alabama’s direct appeals to capital punishment convictions should run concurrently with Rule 32 appeals rather than consecutively, ensuring justice was served in a “timely manner.” As a former inmate on Alabama’s death row, Drinkard has a rarely-seen perspective on why those appeals matter.
“I was arrested for capital murder in 1993 and convicted two years later,” Drinkard said last week, as he was preparing to deliver a speech to the south Alabama chapter of Amnesty International at the University of South Alabama. “The state’s only evidence was based on the testimony of my half-sister and her husband, who were both addicted to cocaine and offered plea deals for their testimony against me.”
As a result of his direct appeals in 2000, the Alabama Supreme Court ordered a new trial for Drinkard because of prosecutorial misconduct. He was acquitted the following year.
“It wouldn’t have affected my case, but when you try to shorten the appeals process, you’re cutting out the prospect of an innocent man being able to bring forward evidence,” he said.
Drinkard cited the case of Bo Cochran, a black man who spent 21 years on Alabama’s death row before being exonerated for the murder of a white store clerk in Jefferson County in 1976.
“Had his appeals been shortened, they would have executed him before he was able to prove his innocence,” Drinkard said. “In our group, there are several men who had been on death row for 15-20 and been able to prove their innocence beyond a shadow of doubt. They would have been murdered by the state under the proposed legislation.”
Today, Drinkard travels the country on behalf of Witness to Innocence, speaking to groups like the one in Mobile last week. He was unable to find steady work after his exoneration because the conviction remained on his record. He has never been offered an apology or any form of compensation from the state for the time he was incarcerated, he said.
Drinkard is among a group of citizens who are not only trying to push back against the new legislation, but are also trying to have the death penalty abolished in Alabama. In Mobile County, two death row inmates, William Ziegler and George Martin, have recently been awarded new trials through the appeals process. Both have been incarcerated since 2000.
Six death row inmates have been exonerated in Alabama in the past 20 years, while 46 have been executed, according to the Death Penalty Information Center. Alabama currently has 190 inmates on death row.
Esther Brown, an organizer for the group Project Hope Against the Death Penalty in Alabama (PHADP), said if there is doubt about any one case, it is one too many.
“Alabama is already the only state without some form of post-conviction relief,” Brown said. “Every other state pays for representation after a capital conviction. For us, people have to find a pro-bono attorney and the attorneys who are willing to take on such significant appeals for no pay are few and far between. So we run into a situation where people may be executed simply for being too poor to hire adequate defense.”
Brown and her group have worked with State Sen. Hank Sanders (D) to introduce annual bills to the legislature to abolish the death penalty, provide a moratorium or other restrictions, such as authoring a bill to ban executions of juveniles or the mentally retarded. In three years, none of their bills have left committee.
“I am against the death penalty, yes,” she said. “So even if somebody is guilty, I believe the state has no right to kill anybody. I’m not saying everybody should be walking outside free, but I do say there are awful lot of people on death row that are not culpable or do not need to be there. It’s especially curious in Alabama, where we claim to be a very Christian state and pro-life but we don’t believe in redemption. I think it’s more about self-righteousness and in the end everything goes back to ignorance.”
Sam Sullins of Huntsville, a PHADP member in Huntsville, said he became an advocate against the death penalty after participating in a justice group at church. Since, he has been writing weekly letters of opposition to State Sen. Cam Ward (R).
“I always try to hit on three points,” Sullins said of the letters. “The first is there is no guarantee of guilt, even after a trial by jury. I also ask him to look at it from a Christian perspective and a cost perspective. Appeals in a capital punishment trial take four-to-five times longer than a life without parole trial and the costs are astronomical versus the $750,000-or-so it costs to imprison someone for their natural life. You would expect most lawmakers would respond to those arguments and all we’re asking is that the bills make it out of a committee and get debated on the House and Senate floor.”
Drinkard said there are other issues that are being ignored, such as whether there should be minimum qualifications for attorneys representing clients in capital cases or whether prosecutors should be elected positions. Prosecutorial misconduct was cited in Drinkard’s exoneration and was also among the reasons a judge ruled in favor of a new trial for William Ziegler last year.
“If they would figure out how to give death penalty cases a decent attorney to start out with and quit hiding evidence and quit having misconduct on the prosecutor’s side, then they wouldn’t have to shorten the appeals, they would go along as normal,” he said. “Prosecutors are elected and they have to win cases and if they don’t win, especially high profile cases, they don’t get reelected. What will stop it is if they are punished for a certain amount of misconduct. My opinion is if there is enough misconduct then their license should be taken.”