BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (WIAT) – In Alabama, defense lawyers who often represent the victims of violent crimes find themselves frequently explaining the difference to families between a capital murder case that is death-eligible and one that is not.
To make a case death-eligible it must be murder along with a dangerous, inherent felony, like robbery, rape, burglary or kidnapping.
“We base charging decisions and capital decisions just based on the law and the facts.”
For Jefferson County DA Danny Carr, it’s never easy when the death penalty is involved in a case.
“They’re always difficult decisions and none of them are the same,” Carr said. “You just have to go in it with an open mind, an open heart and lay everything out on the table to educate and allow them to make that educated decision.”
Carr said a lot of times he finds himself helping families understand when the death penalty is an option or it’s life without parole.
“It has to be a dangerous murder along with a dangerous inherent felony,” Carr said.
In the case of Willie B. Smith, Sharma Ruth Johnson, 22, was kidnapped and shot to death with her body found in her burning car.
“The crime that was committed against Ms. Johnson was a horrendous crime, but to be opposed to the death penalty is not to be calloused toward victims and it’s not to be dismissive toward crime,” defense lawyer Donald Clark, Jr. said.
Clark recently published a book on how he helped reverse the death sentence for Tommy Hamilton—an Alabama man convicted of capital murder during a robbery after finding perjured testimony from law enforcement.
“To deny someone that’s factually guilty of criminal conduct the constitutional safeguards that we cherish is what I believe putting everyone’s liberties at risk,” Clark said.
On either side, emotions constantly run high whether the convicted person is on death row or life without parole.
“We’re going to continue to do what we’re supposed to do, do it in the right manner and just follow the law and let the law dictate and the facts dictate what happens next,” Carr said.
Both attorneys said they do see the death penalty eventually going away in the U.S., especially as President Biden ran on a platform to abolish it.
Clark is calling on the state to be sure capital defendants get qualified and experienced defense – something he thinks fell short in both Hamilton’s and Smith’s case.