A man who was just 17 when he was arrested for the robbery and slaying of a popular Alabama minister/barber has seen his case run the legal gamut.
Initially, in State v. Amison, prosecutors charged the teen with capital murder, as it was a killing allegedly committed in the course of carrying out another felony (in this case, robbery). However, while that case was pending, the U.S. Supreme Court, weighing another Alabama criminal case (Miller v. Alabama), ruled an automatic life sentence with no possibility of parole – which is what would be the punishment in any capital case – was cruel and unusual punishment when defendant was under 18-years-old at the time of the crime. (It’s been illegal to give minors the death sentence since 2005.)
That gave the judge no choice but to dismiss the capital murder charge. Prosecutors then responded by filing two felony murder charges. He and his co-conspirator were convicted on those two charges and given two, 32-year sentences, which were to run concurrently. A concurrent sentence is one in which the sentences are served at the same time, rather than back to back. That means defendants would serve a total of 32 years behind bars, rather than 64 years.
But the case once again went before a higher court, this time the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals in Amison v. State, where defense lawyers argued two felony murder charges amounted to double jeopardy. The appellate court agreed, and ruled in December he could only be sentenced for one of those counts. In January, a trial court, complying with that order, ruled defendant should receive a single 32-year sentence.
Of course, that doesn’t much change in outcome for defendant. He’s still serving 32 years. But the ruling was an important one, particularly because when it comes to violent felony crimes, it’s common for prosecutors to stack charges. This gives them greater leverage in negotiating a plea bargain. However, they should not be allowed to overstep legal boundaries when the law is clear regarding the rights of the accused.
Here, the court noted the 1999 Alabama Supreme Court case of Ex parte Rice held Alabama Code 13A-6-2(a)(3) (the statute pertaining to felony murder in the commission of another crime) creates a single offense, even though it provides alternative methods of proving the offense. Further, the state high court ruled the principle of double jeopardy would bar more than one conviction and more than one sentence for one homicide.
In the Rice case, defendant was convicted of one count felony murder during robbery and one count felony murder during commission of a felony clearly dangerous to human life (discharging a firearm into occupied vehicle). Yet both convictions arose from a single killing, and therefore, he should not be convicted twice for the same crime.
To remedy the earlier problem of not having an alternative under which to sentence a juvenile convicted of capital murder, Alabama Attorney General Luther Strange in June issued an advisory indicating juvenile killers convicted under that law would be eligible for a sentence of life with the possibility of parole. This was after the state legislature failed to enact a law to address the U.S. Supreme Court finding mandatory life sentences without parole for juveniles was unconstitutional.
However, that edict has been challenged by murder defense attorneys who argue the attorney general’s office is attempting to re-write the law, which is a job reserved for legislators.