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From December, 2001
 

Talladega: death row country

Is fairness missing from the state's use of capital punishment?

First of five parts

By JEB PHILLIPS
BIRMINGHAM POST-HERALD

TALLADEGA - There is perhaps no better place in the nation to understand the workings of the death penalty than Talladega County, located about an hour's drive east of Birmingham.

Talladega, with a population of 80,000, has sent more people per capita to death row of any county in the state. And Alabama, which trails only Nevada in the percentage of residents on death row, leads the nation in residents per capita sentenced to death since 1994.

Fourteen men convicted in Talladega County await execution, more than the individual totals of New York and 10 other states that use the death penalty.

In other states, controversies have arisen about whether the death penalty is being applied fairly. Illinois recently placed a moratorium on executions after investigations raised questions about the guilt of some of those slated to die.

Some Alabama lawmakers seek a moratorium here, too, but have been unable to bring the proposal up for a vote.

Yet some critics call Alabama's death penalty system among the worst in the country. They say defense attorneys have not been paid adequately to represent capital murder defendants, some inmates lack lawyers, the judicial system remains virtually all-white in a state with a quarter of its population black, DNA testing is not being used as often as it should, and too many retarded inmates are being executed.

Some also complain about the system's politics. Judges and district attorneys are elected, and must answer to voters who overwhelmingly favor the death penalty. District attorneys decide when to pursue the death penalty. And judges can override a jury's recommendation of life in prison in favor of death, which they do often, or discard a recommendation of execution in favor of a prison term, which they do rarely.

Four Alabama inmates sent to await execution in Alabama's electric chair have been freed because of problems with the original trials. Some critics say this suggests some of the other 185 on death row may be innocent as well.

Others say the release of the four simply shows Alabama's system works. Some officials point out that most death row inmates receive excellent defenses at trial, and, if not, have numerous courts to review any problems that occur.

In a series beginning today and concluding Friday, the Birmingham Post-Herald will examine whether the death penalty is being applied fairly in the state. We'll talk to people involved in all aspects of the capital punishment system, as well as five relatives of victims killed by men sentenced to death.

No place seems to have a greater bond with the death penalty than Talladega County, best known for its speedway that stages NASCAR races, the Alabama School for the Deaf and Blind and Talladega College, the state's oldest black college.

Why the county should send so many people to death row is a bit of a mystery. But, as is the case with almost any controversial issue in Alabama, some people point to race as an explanation.

Talladega County is 31.5 percent black, and half of the 14 men Talladega has sent to death row are black. But the county district attorney and all of its judges are white.

Clarence Dortch is the county's lone black attorney, and he does not handle capital cases. Asked whether he experienced racism in county courtrooms, Dortch laughed and said, "I'd rather not answer that question."

Bernard Bray, a professor of political science at Talladega College, is more forthcoming.

"The administration of the death penalty in Talladega County is thoroughly racist," he said. "There is a lack of defense attorneys who are taking a critical stance on the way the law is administered in the county."

Robert Rumsey, the county's former district attorney who served from 1978 to 1998 and sent 12 people to death row, said race is an issue in Talladega County because it is an issue everywhere. But Rumsey said he did not prosecute anyone on the basis of race.

Jerry Fielding, the county's presiding circuit court judge, said the court system does everything it can to weed out racism. Judges routinely hold special hearings to make sure juries are not racially biased.

But Bray said the whiteness of the system cannot be ignored.
 


"The coroner is white," he said. "The sheriff is white, even though black people think rather highly of him. The judges are white. This is the total view." 

Fielding said the county's high number of death penalty convictions could have something to do with Interstate 20 bringing thousands of people through the county every year. 

Serial killer Danny Siebert, a drifter originally from Illinois, hitched a ride along the interstate with an unsuspecting Talladega resident and killed five people there in 1986. Siebert is believed to have killed seven other people before arriving in town, but Talladega sent him to death row in 1987. 

Rumsey said the county's high death row population is more of a chance trend, that "we had an unusual run of bad cases." 

Rumsey, a bear of a man with a deep voice seasoned by years of smoking, is something of a legend in local legal circles. Once, when there was a dispute over whether a defense attorney erred by skipping a closing argument, a judge cited Rumsey's persuasive powers as evidence the defense attorney acted soundly. 

"It is not an unusual tactical decision in Talladega County for attorneys to waive closing argument to prevent district attorney Rumsey from making a closing argument," the judge wrote. 

William Willingham, a longtime Talladega defense lawyer, tried five capital cases against Rumsey. He lost them all. 

Willingham voiced a complaint often heard among defense lawyers who have handled death row cases: They should have been paid more to provide for a better defense. 

Although the payment provisions have now changed, Willingham and other defense attorneys operated under a standard that limited pay to about $2,000 - even though a lawyer could easily spend 500 hours on a case. Many inmates on death row were represented by lawyers operating under those restrictions. 

Lawyers representing clients in capital murder trials often had to take on more cases than normal to keep money coming in. Willingham said he spent less time on capital cases as he would have liked because of financial pressure. 

"One lawyer can only handle so many cases at one time," he said. "A lawyer's services are going to be compromised." 

But Willingham also praised Rumsey's legal skills. 

"It was pretty tough against him," he said. "As prosecutors go, he was one of the best." 

Not all of Rumsey's courtroom opponents were as diligent as Willingham. 

In one celebrated case involving a woman accused of hiring a hit-man to kill her husband, Rumsey informed Judge Fielding that a defense attorney appeared to be intoxicated. The attorney was sent to jail "basically, to sober up," Fielding said at the time. 

Defendant Judy Haney was convicted and sentenced to death in the 1984 case. Haney's appeals lawyers argued she received ineffective counsel at her trial. 

When the case was sent back to be heard a second time, Fielding reduced her sentence to life in prison without parole. 

Rumsey downplays his courtroom skills, pointing instead to good police work for his success in prosecuting capital cases. 

Rumsey, who is now in private practice, said he does not feel one way or the other about the death penalty. In capital cases, he said, everyone loses: the victim's family loses a loved one, and so does the accused's family. A prosecutor's emotions should not matter, he said. 

"If the facts fit the statute, it was my job to prosecute the case," he said. "I tried not to bring personal feelings into it." 

Where other district attorneys may accept a plea from someone accused of capital murder to avoid a trial, Rumsey almost never would, Fielding said. 

Rumsey served as a district judge before being elected district attorney. He was never challenged in the election for district attorney. He, like others in the justice system, understood what voters wanted, Fielding said. 

Talladega's 14

Talladega County leads the state in the number of inmates per capita sent to death row. The inmates:
  • John W. Peoples Jr., 44. Used a rifle butt to beat to death a Pell City man, his wife and 10-year-old son on July 6, 1983.
  • Shep Wilson Jr., 44. Raped and strangled a Sylacauga convenience store worker on Jan. 27, 1986.
  • Daniel L. Siebert, 47. Strangled five people in February 1986. Believed to have killed seven others across the nation.
  • Jerry Paul Henderson, 54. Hired by a woman to kill her husband on Jan. 1, 1984.
  • William Ernest Kuenzel, 39. Fatally shot a Sylacauga convenience store clerk on Nov. 9, 1987.
  • Charles Randall Stewart, 48. Fatally shot his ex-wife on July 16, 1990, in front of their 6-year-old son.
  • Derrick Anthony DeBruce, 31. Killed a man in the Aug. 16, 1991, robbery of an auto parts store.
  • Charles Lee Burton, 46. Convicted in the same crime as DeBruce. Debruce pulled the trigger, but the robbery was Burton's idea.
  • Larry Donald George, 45. Fatally shot two people on Feb. 12, 1988. In the same episode, he shot his wife and left her a paraplegic.
  • James Charles Lawhorn, 35. Lawhorn's aunt paid him $100 to kill a man.
  • Anthony Boyd, 30. In a dispute over a drug debt, Boyd and three others taped a man to a bench, doused him in gasoline and set him on fire on July 31, 1993.
  • Robert Shawn Ingram, 30. Convicted with Boyd. Ingram was the person who poured the gasoline and lit the fire.
  • William A. Snyder, 39. Beat to death a 72-year-old woman and her son and fatally shot the son's girlfriend on Aug. 11, 1995.
  • John Russell Calhoun, 33. Fatally shot a Talladega man in front of his wife, then raped and sodomized her.

  • Sources: Alabama Department
    of Corrections, court records

    "You have to understand that people in this county are good church-going folks, and they believe that the laws of this county should be followed appropriately," Fielding said.

    Fielding also has to answer to voters. Like every other state judge, he has to stand for election.
     
     

    "As long as you have to run for election every six years, you can't get rid of the political impact," Fielding said.

    All of that leads to a justice culture that rarely receives fresh people with fresh viewpoints, Bray said. And the prevailing viewpoint in Talladega County is one of harsh justice, he said.

    "It is a culture where the justice system is self-centered," he said. Anthony Boyd, a man that Rumsey prosecuted and Fielding tried, said that he was the victim of Talladega County's culture.

    "I've killed no one," he wrote in a letter to the Post-Herald.

    All parties are in agreement on that point, but Boyd remains on death row. He was put there for his role in a July 1993 kidnapping-murder that began in Anniston when Boyd and three other men kidnapped Gregory Huguley, a man who owed them money for drugs.

    They drove the man to a ballpark in Talladega County, taped him to a bench, doused him in gasoline and set him on fire. Rumsey argued that Boyd, Marcell Ackles and Quintay Cox were involved, but that Shawn Ingram was most to blame.

    Boyd, according to court records, helped hold the man while he was being driven to the ballpark and helped tape him to the bench. Boyd denies that and any involvement in the death.

    Ingram is also on death row. Ackles received life in prison without parole. According to court records, Ackles played roughly the same role in the crime that Boyd did.

    Cox was allowed to plead guilty to the crime and received a sentence of life in prison with the chance of parole. Nearly all of the information that convicted the other three defendants came from Cox.

    Rumsey would talk only generally about the case. He said that in cases of multiple defendants, he usually pursued the death penalty just for the person who directly caused the death. He pursued the death penalty for three people in this case because all three were closely connected, he said.

    District attorneys have some discretion when to seek the death penalty, but Talladega County officials seek the death penalty whenever possible, said John Robbins, a Birmingham lawyer who has tried capital cases in Talladega.

    "They believe in law enforcement, they believe in punishment," he said. "They believe in that eye-for-an-eye stuff. ... The judges are extremely nice to you, but they are going to light your client up."

    'She was my best friend'

    Speaking for the victims

    Mary Kate Gach's daughter, Stephanie, was abducted and murdered on the night of Oct. 9, 1992, in Birmingham. Jack Trawick was sentenced to death in the case and sent to Holman Correctional Facility in Atmore. Trawick was convicted of Gach's murder and the murder of Aileen Pruitt. He confessed to killing four other women. Birmingham Post-Herald reporter Taylor Bright asked Gach about the case and the fairness of capital punishment in Alabama. Here's what she had to say:

    "She was my best friend. She was the person who later, when people thought back, recalled she was very sensitive, humble, caring kind of person. And she just made an impact. She was very friendly.

    She was the person who made friends with everybody. She really liked people a lot. She loved animals. She had her very serious side and was very much against any kind of cruelty. Whether it be against animals or people, it just seemed to get her and twist her heart, and she wanted to do something.

    She had converted to Catholicism six months before her death. She had become very proactive in the pro-life thing. ... Although Steph didn't get out and march, she did stand up on University Avenue holding a banner with another person. But she hadn't really gotten into that a whole lot.

    She did write letters to the Catholic newspaper and also to The Birmingham News. We've got several of those she had written - voicing her views on abortion. She was not as vocal, but she was very much against the death penalty. ...

    And going back into the 80's when she and I and our family lived in Anniston, she and I did get involved with an activist group which was based in Montgomery.

    It was a grass roots kind of group that would do a whole lot - and they probably still do this - go down when an execution was imminent and hold up signs in protest. We wouldn't do that, wouldn't go as far as that, but we did go to a candlelight vigil or two, something like that.

    I had already been definitely against the death penalty and so it was natural that she was, too. But it had to do with her religious convictions also very much so, her reverence for life. ...

    I have wondered so often, and I still do, what would she say to me now if she were here, you know, but I have turned around completely.

    She's been dead almost nine years. It's been almost seven and a half since he was sentenced. ...

    I believe that Jack Trawick needs to suffer. He needs to pay. We need completion of justice in our case. And the thing with (Timothy) McVeigh just brought it to the fore, more in focus for me, that even though we're taking a life, it's just really strengthened my stand. But for a few days there I was really torn up about it questioning myself, 'Can I stand this? Can I stand this?'

    One thing that changed my mind in that week after McVeigh died was, I'm not going to go down there (to Atmore) and watch. You see, up until that point I had been convinced I would go down there and witness and be the last person this monster looked at.

    Of course, it probably wouldn't have happened that way, but you know I was going to be there to represent my child, but I'm pretty sure now I can't handle it.

    However, as I said, I've done a lot of soul searching now, and I truly believe that when Stephanie was alive and she and I were against the death penalty, we were idealistic. Of course, she was very idealistic, she was a teen. ...

    I guess what I would say to people today who are against the death penalty is, 'Don't be so sure this is exactly the way it should be - that we should do away with the death penalty, because you have not been there. You have not had your child killed.'

    You know, that's all I can say because you can see: I'm living proof. I completely flipped-flopped, if you want to say a 180-degrees turnaround. And a lot of people would say, 'Well, you just want vengeance,' and people who know me know I'm not like that. I want justice."


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