2010 Regular Session | Moratorium Bills

Bills Sponsored by Senator Hank Sanders

None received a hearing in the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Bill sponsored by Representative Merika Coleman

H.B. 280 Death penalty, moratorium on imposition execution not to exceed three years, procedure for administering. Subcomittee recommends House Joint Resolution to study issues for possible implementation!

3.24.10 Assigned to subcommittee for further study and discussion by Judiciary Committee Chair, Rep. Marcel Black. There were two hearings and a recommendation was made by the subcommittee that a study should be done to ensure that defendants receive quality representation, including post-conviction DNA testing and establishing a public defender's office for capital cases. In 2011 we hope to pick up with this recommedation to the Judiciary Committee! See below!

ROBIN DeMONIA: Baby steps toward justice on executions?
By Robin DeMonia -- The Birmingham News
April 25, 2010, 5:45AM

Before this year’s legislative session becomes a mere blip in the rearview mirror — for everyone except, maybe, federal prosecutors — Alabamians should take a moment to reflect on all the important stuff that got done.

OK. Maybe you’d rather spend hours stewing over the stuff that didn’t get done. But that’s glass-half-empty thinking. Take a lesson from Esther Brown, the executive director of Project Hope to Abolish the Death Penalty. No, a bill calling for a three-year halt on executions did not pass this year, any more than it did last year, or the year before, or the year before. The bill did not get out of committee.

But in the House, at least, it got sent to a subcommittee — one that conducted two hearings on the bill and whose members seemed genuinely interested in issues such as fairness and accuracy in death sentences.

In the end, the House Judiciary subcommittee in early April recommended the bill’s supporters drop the politically charged push for a moratorium. But it recommended lawmakers consider taking up the moratorium bill’s other provisions — an effort to ensure death sentences aren’t tied to race, that capital defendants get quality legal representation and that those who are wrongly convicted have access to legal remedies. The subcommittee said the study should also include a look at a public defender’s office just for capital cases.

“We looked at it as a victory,” Brown said. “For us, it was an acknowledgment that maybe this needs looking at.”

State Rep. Merika Coleman, D-Hueytown, who sponsored the moratorium legislation, was stoked, too, by the turn of events.

“This is the first time we’ve ever gotten this far,” she said. “I think there was a general consensus that something needs to be done.”

Granted, we’re talking about only a handful of legislators, and many more need to be on board to force the state to take a serious look at its death penalty practices. But these were legislators who weren’t exactly natural allies of groups like Project Hope.

The subcommittee’s chairman was state Rep. John Robinson, D-Scottsboro, a former law enforcement officer who spent 28 years in the Jackson County district attorney’s office.

Robinson believes you can be a friend to law enforcement and still recognize more safeguards are needed when it comes to inflicting a death sentence.

He said the reality of wrongful convictions has had an impact on his views on that front. DNA exonerations weigh on his mind, and the subcommittee heard from Alabamians who were sent to Death Row only later to be cleared of the crime.

“We have a good system, but we could do better,” Robinson said. “When you go to talking about taking somebody’s life, you better be sure.”

Robinson’s suggestion — dropping the moratorium and studying the needed reforms — was not a radical idea.

Other states have undertaken similar reviews of their death penalty practices without stopping executions.

“A moratorium is a tough vote for a legislator because it means more delay and is an admission that something is wrong,” Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, said in an e-mail. “A study is much easier to support and pass.”

Even stripped of the moratorium, the bill didn’t get a vote by the full Judiciary Committee. Still, Brown and Coleman are upbeat.

Coleman said everyone recognized an election year didn’t represent optimal timing for addressing flaws with the death penalty. Still, she thought it important to try. “We have to keep those issues out there, on people’s minds,” she said, “and hopefully, one day something will happen.”

Who knows? Maybe all the talk about bingo investigations will help sharpen lawmakers’ focus on issues of justice.

Assuming Coleman is back next year, she said, some version of this bill will be, too — maybe with a moratorium, maybe without. At the very least, Coleman wants to ensure justice and fairness in the death penalty.

The effort didn’t survive the legislative process this year. But from the standpoint of Coleman and Brown, it didn’t exactly die either.

Robin DeMonia is an editorial writer for The Birmingham News. E-mail: [email protected]