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Finding reason enough for death
Where intelligence, morality meet: Should Alabama execute retarded criminals?
By TAYLOR BRIGHTGlenn Holladay had a .32 automatic pistol in his hand, a sheriff's deputy's gun pointed at him, and was a day away from being put on the FBI's 10 Most Wanted list.
"I want my mommy," screamed the 6-foot-3-inch Holladay, who could bench press 400 pounds. "I want my mommy."
Special to the Post-Herald
Holladay is escorted to an Etowah County courtroom for the first day of his 1987 capital murder trial.
"OK, we'll talk to mommy," said the Alachua County, Fla. deputy, Chuck Sexton.
Sexton smacked Holladay's gun away and hit him with the radio. Holladay grabbed Sexton's revolver with one hand and clutched Sexton's crotch with the other, and bit his arm.
"If you let go of the gun, I won't kill you," Holladay said.
Sexton reached down to his backup gun on his ankle, pulled it up, and shot Holladay twice.
Holladay would live to stand trial for the 1986 murder of his ex-wife, Rebecca Ledbetter Holladay, her boyfriend, William David Robinson and a family friend, Larry Thomas, Jr., all in Gadsden.
"He tried to set me up pretending he was a crazy guy," said Sexton, now an investigator with the Alachua County sheriff's department in Gainesville, Fla. "He knew I wouldn't think he was the person he was."
Today, Holladay is fighting for his life on grounds he is mentally retarded. Eighteen of the 38 states that allow the death penalty do not allow execution of the mentally retarded. Some Alabama lawmakers also want to ban the practice.
The definition of mental retardation varies from state to state, but an IQ below 70 is the most common benchmark.
Holladay was scheduled to be executed in July for the three murders he was convicted of in July of 1987. The U.S. Supreme Court stayed the execution while they hear the case of Daryl Atkins, a mentally retarded Virginia man convicted of murder and robbery.
The cases of Atkins and Holladay were two of four before the court that involved the execution of a mentally retarded prisoner.
"He's been tested nine times," said Montgomery lawyer Bryan Stevenson, who is representing Holladay. "Every time he has been tested as mentally retarded."
Holladay's life could be spared if the Supreme Court rules it is unconstitutional to execute the mentally retarded or if the Alabama legislature passes a law prohibiting it.
State Sen. Hank Sanders, D-Selma, in 2000 proposed a ban on the execution of mentally retarded inmates, but won little support, partly because it was linked to a bill seeking a moratorium on all executions.
Sanders said he would likely introduce another bill to stop executions of the mentally retarded in the next session, most separate from a moratorium.
If a law were passed stopping the executions soon, Sanders said, it could spare Holladay's life. The highest hurdle to passing the bill, though, is overcoming opposition by law enforcement and the Alabama attorney general's office.
Those who prosecuted Holladay said even if he has tested as mentally retarded, he is a dangerous killer who should be executed.
James Hedgespeth, who prosecuted Holladay for the three deaths in Gadsden as the Etowah County district attorney, said Holladay is not mentally retarded, despite being illiterate. (While fleeing from the murders, Holladay kidnapped a man and took him to Georgia because he couldn't read the road signs once he got away from the interstate or roads he knew.)
"Glenn Holladay is just mean. He's a burglar, murderer and rapist who was just too darn lazy to learn how to read and write when he was in school," Hedgespeth said.
Stevenson said Holladay may have eluded police, but it isn't a sign of criminal genius.
"You don't have to be a rocket scientist to avoid the police if the effort is not targeted in the right way," Stevenson said.
Birmingham attorney David Arendall represented Holladay in the 1986 kidnapping case. He said Holladay was competent to stand trial but didn't help much in his own defense.
"He wasn't the best witness I ever had," Arendall said. "He definitely had limitations."
"He was certainly uneducated. He was certainly not very bright. Whether it was to the point of mental retardation, I don't know," Arendall said.
Four other Alabamians who were either mentally retarded or borderline have been put to death, according to the Death Penalty Information Center, based in Washington, D.C.
- Horace Dunkins was convicted of the 1981 rape and murder of Lynn McCurry in Warrior.
- Willie Clisby was convicted of the 1979 murder of Fletcher Handley, a crippled Birmingham man.
- Cornelius Singleton was convicted of the 1977 beating death of Sister Ann Hogan, a Roman Catholic nun, in Mobile.
- Varnall Weeks was convicted of the 1981 murder of veterinary student Mark Batts in Tuskegee.
They were all mentally deficient, according to the center. They count 35 people nationwide with mental retardation have been executed since 1976, when the death penalty was reinstituted.
Eighteen states plus the federal government have stopped executing people they believe are mentally retarded. Most use an intelligent quotient scale drawing the line at mental retardation at about 65 or 70.
Jim Ellis, a law professor at the University of New Mexico, has been involved with almost every state's decision to end executions of the mentally retarded. He is helping Atkins' lawyers write their brief to the Supreme Court.
What separates the states that stop executing the mentally retarded and those who don't is a lobbying effort by disability groups within the state, said Ellis. So far that hasn't happened in Alabama.
The Supreme Court last heard the subject in 1989 in the case of a mentally retarded Texas man, John Paul Penry. After a 5-4 vote that upheld executing the mentally retarded, the court asked to see a "national consensus" from state legislatures before the court would act again.
Ellis said the country is closer to that consensus. In the last year alone, five states enacted laws prohibiting the execution of the mentally retarded.
Expanded DNA testing proposed
Lawyer says many death row inmates could win freedom
By JEB PHILLIPSIt was a crisp January morning in 1983 when 12-year-old Rhonda Hardin's body was found in the woods near Piedmont in east Alabama. She had been raped, sodomized and strangled.
Evidence pointed to her stepfather, Danny Joe Bradley. He lied about where he was on the night of the crime. But some of the most damning evidence came from the bodily fluids found in and on Rhonda.
A state expert found they were from a man who had blood like Bradley's. About seven men out of every 100 had that same kind of blood, the expert said.
UAB graduate student Rosana Cosme prepares DNA mini gels for testing at the state forensics lab in Birmingham.
Bradley was found guilty and sentenced to death.
He said he was innocent, and a few friends found reasons to believe him. They wondered, for example, why Rhonda's shoes, which apparently had been tied by the killer after the slaying, were tied in single knots. If Bradley had been trying to hide the crime, the friends said, wouldn't he have tied Rhonda's shoes in the double knots that she always wore?
Bradley turned to the one thing that could prove he didn't rape his stepdaughter: DNA testing.
He is Alabama's first death row inmate who has used post-conviction DNA testing, a tool that has exonerated at least nine death row inmates nationwide. Some defense lawyers say they are sure that DNA testing would prove some Alabama death row inmates innocent. Others are more skeptical.
Bradley's case helps illustrate how difficult post-conviction DNA testing can be. Much of the biological evidence in the 18-year-old case appears lost. Some state officials have resisted Bradley's testing. They have also resisted a proposed law that would give death row inmates - those convicted before DNA testing became popular - access to the testing.
That resistance has critics wondering if the state is doing all it should to ensure the innocent are not executed.
"It's fine with me if he's guilty. I want him to stay in jail," said state Rep. John Rogers, D-Birmingham, who sponsored the DNA testing bill last year. "I'm afraid we've got some folks on death row who shouldn't be there. Not to give a person a simple DNA test to find if they are guilty or innocent is wrong."
As long as DNA testing appears to be legitimate and not just a stalling tactic, the attorney general's office will agree to testing in any death row inmate's case, said Clay Crenshaw, an assistant attorney general who deals with capital cases.
In fact, DNA testing is now a routine part of Alabama's justice system and has been since at least 1994, said J.C. Upshaw Downs, the state's chief medical examiner. The Birmingham laboratory, one of four state labs that handle DNA testing, processes 50 cases per month, said Larry Hughes, who oversees the lab's DNA testing.
About 70 percent of those cases are sexual assaults, where the criminal has left behind his semen, Hughes said. Not much is needed to make use of DNA testing.
Whoever has smoked a cigarette or licked a stamp leaves saliva behind, and that is all DNA analysts need.
Every cell in a person's body contains DNA, which stands for deoxyribonucleic acid, the group of proteins that determine everyone's hereditary characteristics: hair color, eye color, skin color, gender and so on. Only identical twins have identical DNA, so investigators can use it like a fingerprint.
After the testing process, scientists are left with a printout of what looks like a bar-code. Analysts compare the bars of an unknown person's code to the bars of a known persons code. One in 125 million will match on eight bars. One in several billion will have 13 bars that match .
And DNA, if stored properly, can be tested for decades.
DNA testing has caused something of a revolution in law enforcement across the country, said Barry Scheck, a lawyer for Bradley. Scheck, who is based in New York, is perhaps best known for his work in the O.J. Simpson murder trial. He has led the push for post-conviction DNA testing. A group he founded, the Innocence Project at Cardozo School of Law in New York, has used DNA testing to exonerate dozens of convicts nationwide.
"There must be quite a number of people in prison in Alabama who are innocent, probably on death row," he said.
Scheck cited a 1995 U.S. Department of Justice report that found DNA testing excluded suspects in up to a quarter of cases across the country. Those people were never charged because of the testing.
"But for DNA testing, how many of these people would have been convicted?" Scheck asked.
He said that Alabama death row inmates who could benefit the most from testing are those convicted of rape-murders before DNA testing became widespread. Like Danny Joe Bradley.
But the testing has only delayed his execution so far, not cleared him. Scheck and his associates began writing letters in 1996 to agencies who may have had the evidence from 1983.
None of the evidence could be found.
Scheck said people just haven't looked hard enough.
"Unless there is an order that it is destroyed, it's around somewhere," he said.
Rogers calls the state position that it will allow any reasonable post-conviction DNA testing a "smoke screen." The DNA testing bill didn't even make it to a vote in the legislature last year, and Rogers blames that on lobbying from the attorney general's office.
'The whole thing is scary'
Speaking for the victimsCorinne Campbell's sister, Jo Deanne, was raped and murdered in her Homewood apartment on Dec. 31, 1992. Christopher Brooks, was found guilty and sentenced to death. A friend of Brooks who was sleeping in the apartment at the time of the murder, Robert Leeper, was not charged. Birmingham Post-Herald reporter Taylor Bright asked Campbell about the case and the fairness of capital punishment in Alabama. Here's what she had to say:
"Jo Deanne was full of life, a free-spirit-type person. She enjoyed people, laughing, traveling - just full of life.
... She worked at Chili's restaurant down 280 and she didn't come into work ... That was the year of the (University of Alabama football) championship so I thought maybe she took off to New Orleans or something like that.
Corinne Campbell holds a picture ofher sister Jo Deanne and their mother. Campbell's sister was murdered in her Homewood apartment Dec. 31, 1992.
She was due back later at work that day and Mom and Dad called her house and the answering machine picked up and she didn't show back at work.
That day she was due in at 5 (o'clock). That's when I first became alarmed. At Chili's, everyone was acting really strange, but then they (parents) called me.
I had been out playing tennis all day, and hearing the news was sort of an out-of-body experience. You lose bodily function control. Just the horror of it all.
It was overwhelming fright, disillusionment. All the things going through your mind. It was a big surprise.
Then, of course the fear of, 'Gosh, who could have done this?' And the thought of them walking through the apartment and the whole nightmare of it, as we learned later ... She knew the guy through a camp. It wasn't like she was any more friends with him (Chris Brooks) than anyone else.
She had a relationship with everyone from children to adults to having relationships with people her own age. She corresponded with people all over the country so it was not unusual that he would stop by when he came to town. It was not unusual for her to be glad to see him and welcome him. ...
He had taken the car, CD's, and answering machine and one thing that stuck out in my mind - it had her message on one side (when they caught him). He didn't bother to erase her message. He had just turned it over and put his message on the other side. But, he was living off her money.
... The presentation at the trial was not like I had pictured it would be like you see on TV. That was all I had seen. The reality of it was there were a lot more boring parts to it that you don't understand what's going on.
Then being in the room and walking behind him sitting there and just trying to physically picture him doing this. It's hard not to just want to find out why ... or, you know, strangling her. How hard it is to - anger, rage and a complete lack of understanding.
The trial was quite painful mainly because of my parents - to see them. And I think the district attorney did say if he (pleaded) guilty, would we agree to life without parole? At the time I think we stood there.
The entire conversation was not the normal type of conversation that you have with your family like when you sit down for dinner. It was anxiety ridden. But we all pretty much discussed it.
And I think I kind of wanted to hop towards doing this, but at the same time I didn't. ... I had these feelings about the death penalty at the time.
I think what I came to understand was that the death penalty is not a killing for a killing, but it's punishment for that killing and that just happened to be the course of punishment. That kind of made it OK.
Of course they didn't come out and admit it and they still haven't. How could he sit there and have this cold calculated look on his face the entire time when they're describing the things they did to her and how he did it?
And hearing his response in the trial. But the trial pretty much painted the picture of what happened that night. I think in his mind he was thinking, "How did they know we did it?" You know maybe a little --- off because they put together what happened ...
It was also some anxiety there too watching the jury. What if they find him guilty, but only give him 10 years?
I felt confident towards the end of the trial because there was an incredible amount of physical evidence and the witnesses and everything, but the whole thing is scary."
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