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.

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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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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