No death penalty for AL man jailed 10 years awaiting trial & now dismissal hearing set

Kharon Davis has been held at the Houston County Jail for almost 9 years with no trial or bond
Kharon Davis has been held at the Houston County Jail for 10 years with no trial or bond

Earlier this year (March 27th 2017), the newly appointed Alabama prosecutors announced that they were no longer seeking the death penalty against Kharon Davis, who has been jailed for nearly 10 years while he awaits trial. The $64,000 Question has to be, why did it take only 30 days for the new prosecutors to make the decision that the previous prosecutors seemingly let drag on for a decade?

Kharon Davis has been held without bail in the Houston County Jail since his arrest in 2007, his supporters say that he has been relentlessly and unfairly punished during the time that he has been held in the jail. He is accused of killing Pete Reeves of Dothan. Davis has maintained his innocence throughout, being charged with capital murder because prosecutors said the shooting occurred during a robbery. Davis’ supporters have argued there was no evidence to support that charge.

The trial, now scheduled for September, has been delayed several times, however the Alabama NAACP announced on May 26th 2017 that a hearing with Judge Kevin Moulton has been scheduled to dismiss the charges altogether. The hearing is on June 6th 2017,  08:30 at the Houston County Courthouse.

Alabama NAACP request dismissal hearing in the Kharon Davis case.
Alabama NAACP request dismissal hearing in the Kharon Davis case.

SPLC, other civil rights groups challenge wealth-based bail system in impoverished Alabama county

Article originally published here
Jails are not meant to warehouse poor people who have not been convicted of a crime
Jails are not meant to warehouse poor people who have not been convicted of a crime.

Editor’s note: Within hours of the lawsuit’s filing, a federal judge granted a temporary restraining order preventing officials from continuing to jail Kandace Edwards for her inability to pay bail. 

The money bail system in Randolph County, Alabama, violates the constitutional rights of people charged with misdemeanors or felonies because it creates a “two-tiered” system of justice based on wealth, according to a federal class action lawsuit filed today by the Southern Poverty Law Center, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), the ACLU of Alabama, and the Civil Rights Corps.

The suit is among the first to challenge the constitutionality of felony bail practices.

As in many other jurisdictions across the country, people charged with crimes in Randolph County are jailed following arrest if they can’t afford to pay bail. Those who face the same charges but can afford to pay are freed until trial.

Jails are not meant to warehouse poor people who have not been convicted of a crime,” said SPLC Deputy Legal Director Sam Brooke. “Keeping people in jail cells for weeks or months simply because they can’t afford to pay for their freedom coerces people to plead guilty even if they are innocent, wastes taxpayer money on unnecessary detention, and is a form of wealth-based discrimination prohibited by the Constitution.”

The suit was filed on behalf of 29-year-old Kandace Edwards in U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Alabama, Eastern Division. It accuses judicial and county officials of violating Edwards’ due process and equal protection rights.

Edwards, who has two young children and is seven months pregnant, was arrested yesterday for forging a $75 check. She is currently being held in jail because she cannot afford to pay $7,500 required by the court’s bail schedule.

“I am concerned about my health because I am currently sleeping on a mat on the floor in the jail,” she wrote in a declaration accompanying the complaint. “I am indigent. I have no assets.”

Edwards, who served in the Army National Guard from 2006 until 2010, wrote in the document that she recently lost her job due to her high-risk pregnancy and has been homeless since December.

In Randolph County, each offense has an assigned dollar amount. Anyone who can pay the full amount or arrange for payment through a bail bond company or other third party, is released automatically, without regard to whether they are likely to flee before trial or be a danger to the community. Those who cannot pay must remain in jail for up to a month for a release hearing. If they are not released after the hearing, they face six months in jail – or longer – until trial, because trials are scheduled only twice per year.

Studies show that money bail systems like Randolph County’s make it more likely that innocent people will plead guilty before trial so they can get out of jail.

Nationwide, as in Randolph County, the ability to pay is the most important factor in determining whether someone is released. Yet research demonstrates that money bail does not improve public safety or court appearance rates. Non-financial conditions of release – such as unsecured bond, reporting obligations, and phone and text message reminders of court dates – are more effective.

In Randolph County, money bail has a devastating impact. Nearly one out of every five people in the county lives in poverty. Almost half of the residents 17 and older are unemployed. The system is also particularly costly for the county. The Legislature recently passed a sales tax increase to build a new jail. The current jail is operating at more than three times capacity, and the vast majority of the people detained there are being held prior to trial.

Over the past two years, lawsuits have successfully challenged wealth-based detention in a number of municipal courts, resulting in reform and judicial orders condemning these practicesin Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, Tennessee and Texas. In 2014, an Alabama federal judge held in one such case that “[j]ustice that is blind to poverty and indiscriminately forces defendants to pay for their physical liberty is no justice at all.

Following that decision, the SPLC and Civil Rights Corps worked with the 75 largest municipal courts in Alabama to reform their practices. Those courts no longer require most arrestees to pay for their release, resulting in a dramatic decrease in the state’s municipal court jail population. In the city of Hoover, the jail population dropped by almost 90 percent.

Alabama Prosecutor Sets the Penalties and Fills the Coffers

Jarvis Bracy and his wife, Khadijah Ross. He was charged with a felony for misidentifying himself to a police officer one drunken night. Credit William Widmer for The New York Times

DOTHAN, Ala. — It was a run-of-the-mill keg party in an open field, until one guest, Harvey Drayton Burch III, objected to paying for his beer. Witnesses said Mr. Burch fired a gun over the crowd and began spraying Mace. With partyers fleeing, Mr. Burch jumped into the back seat of a car as it drove away.

The driver had a name well known in Henry County: Douglas A. Valeska II, the son of the local district attorney. When the car was stopped, a deputy found a loaded magazine and knife in Mr. Burch’s pocket, a gun and pepper spray in a backpack, and a pink pill on the floorboard. After Mr. Burch admitted to firing his weapon, he was arrested. The district attorney arrived to take his son and two other passengers home.

No Money, No Mercy…Articles in this series examine how money undermined reforms to America’s criminal justice system. 

Mr. Burch, then 28, was charged with gun and drug possession, but not with firing a weapon or spraying Mace. He did not face prosecution. Instead, District Attorney Douglas A. Valeska granted him pretrial diversion, an alternative to court that is usually reserved for nonviolent offenses. After Mr. Burch paid $2,396 in fees and stayed out of trouble for two years, the case was dismissed in 2011.

The same year, Mr. Valeska gave the Henry County Sheriff’s Office $2,300 from his pretrial diversion fund to pay for scuba gear. The department’s dive team was led by Lt. Troy Silva, the arresting officer in the Burch case. Lieutenant Silva said in an interview that the money was not related to the case and that Mr. Valeska routinely allocated diversion funds for police equipment.

Diversion was created nationwide to spare first-time or low-risk defendants the harsh consequences of a criminal record and to give prosecutors more time to go after dangerous offenders. But things have played out differently in places like southeast Alabama’s Wiregrass Country, where an investigation by The New York Times found that diversion resembles a dismissal-for-sale scheme, available only to those with money and, in some cases, favor.

Mr. Valeska has proved exceedingly adept at using diversion, generating more than $1 million for his office in the last five years.

The money has helped him consolidate his singular power over the justice system in Houston and Henry Counties, where he has presided as the chief prosecutor for three decades.

Dothan, the seat of Houston County and, with 70,000 residents, the regional hub, can feel like it is caught in a Southern time warp, immune to change and defined by racial division. Dothan, where one in three residents is black, has never had a black mayor, police chief, circuit judge or school superintendent. Meetings of the city commission are held in a room adorned with 28 portraits of city leaders, all of them white men. An old photograph shows police officers, including the current chief, posing beside a Confederate flag.

The Prosecutor’s Deal, the Defendant’s Dilemma

A process called pretrial diversion is intended to relieve overburdened courts and help low-risk offenders get on with their lives. You decide if it’s really that simple.

Many black residents say they are at a significant disadvantage in the criminal justice system, complaining of nearly all-white juries and harsher sentences. Last year, two-thirds of those arrested in Dothan were black.

In the 1990s, Mr. Valeska had a string of convictions overturned for illegally striking blacks from the jury pool — a practice critics say continues to this day. He referred to one black defendant as “the yard boy.” He has never hired a black prosecutor.

“If you take Doug Valeska personally, I don’t think he’s racist — I don’t agree with that,” said the Rev. Kenneth Glasgow, a black ex-convict and longtime advocate for criminal justice reform. “But he represents and endorses and enforces and upholds a racist system.”

Mr. Valeska declined repeated requests for an interview.

Though he is a prodigious user of diversion, he has shown little inclination toward its goals of mercy and rehabilitation. At 65, with a thatch of tungsten-colored hair and an impatient forward lean, Mr. Valeska takes an Old Testament approach to justice, asking juries to exact “an eye for an eye.”

Houston County ranks in the top 10 counties nationwide for death row prisoners per capita.

In one case dating from 1996, Mr. Valeska continues to pursue a death sentence that has been overturned four times by higher courts. In 2014, Mr. Valeska successfully moved to bar testimony from a victim’s relative who wanted to request mercy for the defendant. Last month, a jury considered the sentence yet again but deadlocked, and the judge declared a mistrial.

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A Long Legal Battle Over Prosecutorial Misconduct by the AL Attorney General’s Office Results in the Dismissal of Murder Charges Against George Martin

Copied article originally posted here Mar 30, 2016

“If the Martin case is not one which is appropriate for dismissal, there may never be one.”

That’s not a quote from a defense brief or a member of the defense team’s mouth. It is a direct quote from Judge Robert H. Smith’s March 11, 2016 order dismissing George Martin’s capital murder indictment with prejudice. “Had this case been tried fairly,” he adds, “all would have had resolution of this matter long ago.” Indeed, though the State is appealing the judge’s decision, the trial court’s order reveals the disturbing truth that the Alabama Attorney General’s office has engaged in intentional misconduct in the Martin case for more than a decade.

Though we have previously covered the case, we add some additional details here in light of these latest developments. George Martin, a former State trooper in Alabama, was charged with killing his wife, Hammoleketh Martin, for pecuniary gain. She died in a fire inside her car in 1995. Because the Mobile County District Attorney’s Office decided not to prosecute the case, the Attorney General’s office took over. The State alleged that Martin intentionally set his wife’s car on fire while she was inside, killing her to collect life insurance payments. At trial, Martin’s defense was that the death was an accident caused by a mishap with the gas can the victim kept in the car.

The State prevailed at trial and won a conviction in 2000. The jury initially returned an 8-4 recommendation for a life sentence, but the trial court judge (then-Judge Ferrill McRae) overrode that recommendation and sentenced Martin to death. (This death sentence was soon lifted by the Alabama Supreme Court with instructions for additional consideration of the jury’s sentencing recommendation; after that additional consideration, Judge McRae again imposed a death sentence despite the jurors’ earlier vote in favor of mercy.) The Alabama judiciary denied Mr. Martin’s direct appeals.

In post-conviction proceedings in 2008, Martin’s defense team requested access to the prosecution’s files because it believed the prosecution had withheld exculpatory evidence. Those motions sparked an epic legal battle that lasted several years in which the Attorney General’s office fought tooth-and-nail to keep its files from the opposition. On three separate occasions, the prosecutors launched mandamus petitions in an effort to shut down the trial court’s orders to turn over the information the defense had requested. The first effort succeeded, temporarily. But, the trial court then made the “good cause” finding the appellate court requested in order to compel disclosure. The State’s second effort to stave off discovery also succeeded temporarily, but in 2010 the trial court again granted the defense’s discovery motion. The State filed another mandamus petition to avoid fulfilling the order; finally the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals and the Alabama Supreme Court denied the State’s petition.

So, what happened when the State at long last turned over its file? What had it been sitting on for so many years? Why was the Attorney General’s office so profoundly reluctant to give Martin an opportunity to look at the documents compiled during its investigation? Perhaps unsurprisingly, the discovery contained a treasure trove of exculpatory evidence that would have facilitated Mr. Martin’s defense at trial.

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ALABAMA COURT REVERSES HOUSTON COUNTY DEATH SENTENCE FOR THE FOURTH TIME

Article originally posted on the equal Justice Initiatives website here, June 3, 2016

Today, the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals reversed EJI client Jerry Smith’s death sentence for the fourth time, finding that the sentence sought by Houston County District Attorney Doug Valeska was again unconstitutionally obtained.

Mr. Smith was convicted of capital murder and illegally sentenced to death in 1998. That sentence was reversed by the Alabama Supreme Court because the trial court improperly excluded mitigating evidence from the jury’s consideration.

Mr. Smith was illegally sentenced to death a second time; the Alabama Supreme Court reversed that sentence because potential jurors had unconstitutional contact with members of the victims’ family.

Mr. Smith was illegally sentenced to death again in 2012 after a proceeding where the jury was wrongly told to consider an improper sentencing factor. That error was so clear the Attorney General’s Office agreed the case should be reversed and the Court of Criminal Appeals reversed Mr. Smith’s death sentence.

In a fourth sentencing proceeding, District Attorney Doug Valeska again obtained a death sentence for Mr. Smith. That sentence was reversed today because the Court of Criminal Appeals agreed with EJI’s arguments that the trial judge violated the Sixth Amendment when he barred members of the public from the courtroom during the proceedings.

EJI also argued that Mr. Valeska illegally barred African Americans from serving on the jury for Mr. Smith’s fourth sentencing trial. Mr. Valeska removed every one of the 11 qualified African Americans from the jury. As a result, Mr. Smith, who is black, was tried by an all-white jury in a county whose population is 25 percent African American. The Court of Criminal Appeals did not address this issue in today’s opinion because it reversed Mr. Smith’s death sentence because his right to a public trial was violated.

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