Senate votes to create innocence commission

Published 9:41 pm Friday, April 8, 2016

MONTGOMERY (AP) — The Alabama Senate on Thursday approved legislation — inspired by the case of a death row inmate — that would create a state commission to review innocence claims in capital convictions.

Under the narrowly tailored bill, an inquiry innocence commission would review only new evidence that hadn’t previously been heard by a court, either at trial or during appeals of a death penalty case. Senators voted 20-6 for the bill, sending it to the House of Representatives for consideration.

“Now, I’m all for the death penalty, but if we are going to have it, we ought to make sure that the people we execute are, in fact, guilty,” said the bill’s sponsor, Sen. Dick Brewbaker.

Email newsletter signup

The Pike Road Republican cited the case of death row inmate Bill Kuenzel, who has been unsuccessfully trying to get an appeal heard. Kuenzel was convicted of killing Linda Jean Offord during a 1987 robbery at Joe Bob’s Crystal Palace in Sylacauga.

Kuenzel’s lawyers said they have new evidence that creates doubts about his guilt, but have been unable to raise it in court after missing a deadline to bring forward a newly discovered evidence claim.

His conviction was based largely on plea deal testimony from his roommate, Harvey Venn, who pleaded guilty to a lesser charge and served about 10 years in prison.

Under Alabama law, accomplice testimony must be corroborated by other evidence in order for the conviction to stand.

Kuenzel’s lawyers said a teenage witness — who had placed Kuenzel at the scene in her trial testimony — had initially told the grand jury she didn’t know who was at the store that night and couldn’t see a face. Lawyers said they later discovered that Venn, who testified that he waited in the car while Kuenzel killed the clerk, owned the same gauge shotgun as the murder weapon. Venn, who had blood on his pants, also initially told police he was with a different friend at the convenience store, Kuenzel’s lawyers said.

The Alabama Supreme Court last week refused, without comment, to hear Kuenzel’s appeal.

“Just because he missed the deadline, no jury is ever going to hear this exculpatory evidence and we’re going to execute him. Bottom line,” Brewbaker said.

Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore dissented in a special writing about the court’s refusal to hear Kuenzel’s case.

“Because of the irreversibility of the death penalty, however, I believe some leeway may be warranted in this case,” Moore wrote.

Brewbaker said he intentionally made the bill restrictive in order to boost its chance of passage in order to get Kuenzel’s case heard. An earlier version of the bill would have let the panel review felony convictions and established a death penalty moratorium.

Janette Grantham, of Victims of Crime and Leniency, a victims’ advocacy group, said Thursday she had not seen the new version of the bill. But she said she did not see the need for additional review since families of victims wait decades for death sentences to be carried out.

“We already have the longest appeals process in the country,” Grantham said.

The attorney general’s office did not have an immediate response to the new version of the bill.

The Alabama Court of Criminals in July rejected Kuenzel’s appeal, saying it was time-barred.

Assistant Attorney General Clay Crenshaw told the appellate court during oral arguments that while the trial witness had “slight variations” in her testimony, she said at trial that she believed it was Venn and Kuenzel at the store.

There was other evidence, Crenshaw said, that would corroborate Venn’s testimony, including that after the killing, Kuenzel told co-workers that the best way to kill someone was with a shotgun because it was harder to trace the shooting back to that weapon.

Kuenzel had been scheduled for execution last year, but the execution date was vacated while the appellate courts considered whether to hear his case.