WAFF Investigates: Time and Justice - WAFF-TV: News, Weather and Sports for Huntsville, AL

WAFF Investigates: Time and Justice

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A north Alabama district attorney leads the charge to change the appeals process for killers sentenced to death.

The average stay on death row in Alabama is about 15 years.

Arthur Lee Giles, convicted at the age of 19, has been sitting on death row the longest, since 1979.

Right behind him is Thomas Arthur, since 1982. The state postponed his execution five times over the past 11 years.

Families of the victims of the "cell phone murders" prepare for appeals hearings involving the men convicted of killing their loved ones. Nicholas Acklin and Joseph Wilson killed four people execution style at a home in Huntsville and injured two others, all over a stolen cell phone. They've been on death row since 1998.

Acklin claims his original legal team didn't do a good enough job representing him. He says he took Xanax during the trial and the anti-anxiety drug made him appear emotionless in front of the jury.

However, the family of one their victims are full of emotion.

"We miss our son, a big old hole in your heart," said Marcia Hemphill.

A Marine, Charles Hemphill was just 21 when he was shot and killed by Acklin and Wilson. For the Hemphills, the 15 years his killers have been sitting on death row feel like forever.

Rob Broussard, who was an Assistant District Attorney at the time, tried the case in the 90s.

"He requests something to calm his nerves during the trial and a doctor prescribes him a Xanax to calm his nerves. And now guess what, 15 years later you have some attorneys from out of state saying Nick deserves a new trial because Nick had a Xanax, that he asked for and it was an unfair trial. Now somebody tell me how that's justice," said Broussard.

Now as District Attorney, he's leading an effort to streamline the appeals process. Direct appeals and Rule 32 appeals would run at the same time.

Currently, Rule 32 appeals don't begin until after those first direct appeals are exhausted and that often takes years if not decades to possibly make it to the U.S. Supreme Court.

"It's a mockery of the system and the appellate process, what we have right now, and I believe this legislation will correct that. This new legislation doesn't change anything, it has more of a time line, timed deadlines on it," added Broussard.

States like Texas, Florida and Virginia have already over-hauled their appeals process.

Alabama Attorney General Luther Strange says we should do the same.

"I'd like to see it be a faster process. At the same time it needs to be fair, obviously to the convicted felon. Justice is not being done as long as we delay the process as long as we have. It's expensive, it's very difficult on victim's families," said Strange.

Right now, there are 193 death row inmates.

According to the Department of Corrections, the average cost to house and feed each is about $15,000 taxpayer dollars a year. The appeals process can also run into the thousands. However, it does serve another purpose, to ensure an innocent person isn't put to death.

"I believe in my heart that we have killed innocent people," said Sam Sullins for Project Hope to Abolish the Death Penalty.

Sullins writes a letter every week to the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Sam Ward trying to convince him that the death penalty should be abolished in the state of Alabama.

Sullins also serves on the advisory board of the organization Project Hope to abolish the death penalty.

According to The Death Penalty Information Center, six innocent people have been freed from Alabama's death row.

Sullins says since the justice system is an imperfect science, the state should stop executions and choose another form of punishment.

"Life without parole, it's cheaper, it's not retaliatory and you guarantee that you will not execute an innocent person," said Sullins.

He's going to the top for support to get five proposed senate bills that have been stuck in committee up for a vote. Bills that would repeal the death penalty, deny judges the ability to override a jury, among not executing mentally disabled inmates.

Though Sullins admits, he's never gone through anything like the Hemphills.

The Hemphills fully support the death penalty and will continue to wait for what they see as justice.

"There is no way we are going to get our son back," said Marcia Hemphill.

Attorney General Luther Strange plans to submit a proposal when lawmakers head back in session in January.

Meanwhile, the Hemphills who never miss an appeals hearing for their son's convicted killer, will be at his hearing set for Dec. 9.

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