WAFF Investigates: Time and Justice

Published: Nov. 14, 2013 at 9:16 PM CST|Updated: Nov. 15, 2013 at 3:00 AM CST
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HUNTSVILLE, AL (WAFF) - A north Alabama district attorney leads thecharge to change the appeals process for killers sentenced to death.

The average stay on death row in Alabama isabout 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, since1982. The state postponed his execution five times over the past 11 years.

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

Acklin claims his original legal team didn'tdo a good enough job representing him. He says he took Xanax during the trialand the anti-anxiety drug made him appear emotionless in front of the jury.

However, the family of one their victims arefull of emotion.

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

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

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

"He requests something to calm hisnerves 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 statesaying Nick deserves a new trial because Nick had a Xanax, that he asked forand it was an unfair trial. Now somebody tell me how that's justice," saidBroussard.

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

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

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

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

Alabama Attorney General Luther Strange sayswe should do the same.

"I'd like to see it be a faster process. Atthe same time it needs to be fair, obviously to the convicted felon. Justice isnot being done as long as we delay the process as long as we have. It'sexpensive, 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 ayear. The appeals process can also run into the thousands. However, it doesserve another purpose, to ensure an innocent person isn't put to death.

"I believe in my heart that we havekilled innocent people," said Sam Sullins for Project Hope to Abolish theDeath Penalty.

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

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

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

Sullins says since the justice system is animperfect science, the state should stop executions and choose another form ofpunishment.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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