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August 31, 2010

Quantifying the "Worst of the Worst" in Alabama

I just came across this interesting looking empirical piece by Jennifer Leigh Adger, which is titled "Quantifying the ‘Worst of the Worst’: Victim, Offender and Crime Characteristics Contributing to ‘Heinous, Atrocious, or Cruel’ Findings in Alabama." Here is the abstract:

This study focuses on capital sentencing in Alabama.  Specifically, it will attempt to identify characteristics of homicides that distinguish cases with “heinous, atrocious, and cruel” (HAC) findings from those homicides that do not have this finding.  Critics of HAC assert that it lacks a clear statutory definition, and is, as a result, particularly vulnerable to being applied inconsistently. HAC is found in approximately forty percent of the cases in which an individual is sentenced to death in Alabama and is one of the most highly litigated aggravating circumstances across the country.

In order to examine how Alabama trial courts have been applying the HAC aggravating circumstance this study gathered data from all 414 individuals sentenced to death in Alabama from 1976 to 2008. Information was collected about procedural aspects of the cases, perpetrator and victim characteristics, and characteristics of the homicide.  I examined the relationship between HAC findings and various crime characteristics using a logistic regression model.  Even though the results of this analysis indicated that some case characteristics may be statistically relevant in predicting whether a particular case will result in a HAC finding, this study’s overall quantitative and qualitative examination was unable to identify a unifying set of characteristics that categorically distinguish the cases in which HAC is found from those where it is not.  Because of these results, it appears that Alabama’s construction of HAC does not result in a consistent application of this aggravating circumstance.

August 31, 2010 at 08:22 AM | Permalink


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In short, the death penalty in Alabama, and almost certainly in all other states where the death penalty is retained, is arbitrary. Unfortunately, this fact is so obvious that it has been discounted by pro-death penalty advocates as a valid concern. As someone said recently (apologies, I cannot immediately recall who), whilst the individual has a right to respond with a wish for vengeance, following the murder of a loved one, the state has a duty to exercise the law in a manner consistent with moderation, and ethical and moral values.
Shifting the discussion slightly, an inmate currently awaiting executing makes this plea of innocence. If even a small fraction of what he claims is true, then the term arbitrary takes on a completely new meaning:

"To whom it may concern:, this correspondence is because i need your help and time. My name is Frederick Bell. I am on MS death row. I am at the end of my appeal. I have been trying to prove my innocence for 19yrs. There has been an injustice done to me. I personally believe it's because i am in the South, and and accused of killing a white man,(in other words), because of racism, economical, and political.The reason i say that is this: 1. The jury i had had ties to the victim, or his family, or law enforcement. One juror was the 1st cousin of the chief investigating officer,(a principal prosecution witness in the case). The foreman was a friend of the victim's father,(and was in addition a brother-in-law of a Grenada policeman). A few jurors had a business relationship with the victim's father. I had jurors that went to the funeral, and some sent cards to the victim's family. I had a juror worked at the same facility as the victim's mother. I had jurors that went to the same ball games, and the same
church. The victim's father, (before any jurors were picked), went up to the jurors, and shook their hands, telling them that he hope that they be on the jury, because they will be a fine juror. 2. There were 2 unknown latent prints found at the crime scene.They compared them to my prints,but they didn't match. In fact, no forensic evidence placed me at the crime scene. It's been 19yrs, and they haven't ran the prints to see who they match. From the moment i got arrested, I have maintained my innocence throughout. 3. I have a witness that gave an affidavit stating that when he was questioned by the police, he told them that he saw a person leave the crime scene. He gave them a description of that person and the car that he saw but he was never called to testify. Why? Because he said i wasn't the person he saw. 4. I have 12 witnesses that gave affidavits stating that i was in the state of Memphis, TN when the crime took place.They were never called to testify, because my trial lawyer didn't take the time to investigate my case. He took what the prosecution said. I was the 1st capital case that he ever handled. To add to his lack of experience, the state of MS appointed 2 more capital cases to him while he was handling my case. Years later, this same lawyer got disbarred, convicted, and sentenced. 5. A principal prosecution witness just gave an affidavit a few weeks ago stating he told his lawyer that i didn't commit the crime, but then his lawyer told him if he didn't say i did it, they were going to fry him. His lawyer told him that the prosecution was going to take real good care of him for his testimony. If anyone ask was he given a deal, for him to say that he's only here to tell the truth. 6. The prosecution's theory was that i purchased some chips,and beers from the victim. Then went outside, sat on a picnic table, drank beer, and ate the chips. They took pictures of the picnic table and the beer bottles. I've been trying to get dna done off the beer bottles, but they won't give it to me. I will settle for a fingerprint test off the beer bottles. As you can see. I really need your help,and or assistance. My time is very near the end as i have exhausted my appeals, and i have no where else to turn except to the public in the hopes that someone, somewhere will hear, and help me.
Anyone interested in following this up, and exercising some of that ethical and moral responsibilty that the state appears to have cast aside, can find out more by clicking on my name. Whether Bell is innocent or guilty, he deserves, under the US Constitution and in the name of human rights, a better process of judgment than he has thus far received.

Posted by: peter | Aug 31, 2010 11:15:57 AM

In Woodson v North Carolina the Supreme Court guaranteed that there would be no further mandatory death sentences. Instead, they put seeking the death penalty in the hands of individual DA's and imposing it in the hands of Judges and juries. When they did that they made the death penalty arbitrary. There is no way around it.

Posted by: MikeinCT | Aug 31, 2010 12:36:57 PM

You can pass the blame around to several judges, DA's, etc. but the US Supreme Court has flip-flopped on so many cases since 1976 that it is no wonder the lower courts have so much trouble finding the correct conclusion.

Posted by: DaveP | Aug 31, 2010 9:09:19 PM

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