While Alabama executions are somewhat commonplace, death row cases are inordinately complex and lengthy, and in some cases inmates wait for 20 years or more on death row before their execution.

The process for death row inmates starts at their trial. Once a trial court jury has convicted them of capital murder, the jury is able to make a sentencing recommendation to the judge who passes sentence. While in other states a jurys recommended sentence is the final word, Alabama judges are able to sentence defendants to life or death row completely on their discretionthe only state that allows judges this freedom.

After a judge hands down a sentence of death, the defendant becomes an inmate, being housed in one of two death rows in the state. An automatic appeal on behalf of the inmate is triggered to the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals. This appeals process is on the merits of the case, and whether the inmates constitutional rights were violated during the trial. The appeals court can send the case back to the trial court, reverse the trial courts decision or uphold the lower courts sentence.

After the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals has heard the case, there are no more automatic appeals. An inmate must actively file through a myriad process of appeals courts and processes to save them from execution.

The next step is to petition the Alabama Supreme Court to hear the case. They may agree to hear the case and issue a ruling, or deny hearing the case altogether. After this step, inmates may petition the U.S. Supreme Court for a ruling. This entire process could take years.

Although the U.S. Supreme Courts ruling is final, inmates may still make two other types of appeals. The next type of appeal is called a Rule 32 appeal. This type of appeal does not question whether an inmates rights were violated, but rather whether defense attorneys put up an adequate defense for the inmate, whether the state withheld information from trial and other legal issues. This type of appeal does not necessarily call into question whether the inmate is guilty or innocent, but rather if there were any legal mistakes made from both sides in the trial.

The circuit court first hears this appeal, followed by the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals, the Alabama Supreme Court and finally the U.S. Supreme Court. Any of these courts can uphold the sentence, remand the case back to the circuit court for a re-trial or ignore the case altogether.

Finally, an inmate is entitled to one final appeal: the Federal Writ of Habeas Corpus request. Habeas Corpus, which in Latin literally means may you have your body, and originated from England in the 1300s, which gave the King permission to determine whether a person was being unlawfully detained.

A federal habeas corpus appeal is filed in the United States District Courtin Alabama cases, either in Mobile, Birmingham or Montgomery, depending on the location of the initial crime. The inmate, now called the petitioner, argues that the entire conviction should be overturned because their constitutional rights have been violated. The State Attorney General responds to this petition in court, and the petitioner may find fault with the conviction of the inmate and order a hearing to address the conviction or deny the petitioner relief.

If a petitioner is denied relief, the case goes to the 11th Circuit United States Court of Appeals. There, a three-judge panel will hear arguments from both Alabamas Attorney General and the petitioner. If the petitioners relief is granted, his sentence could be stayed pending further review, commuted to a lesser sentence or released entirely. In most cases, however, the 11th circuit will deny the petitioner any relief, leaving one last appeal.

Finally, a death row inmate can appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court for a writ of certiorari. A writ of certiorari essentially is a request that a higher courtin this case the highest court in the U.S.direct a lower court to some decision. Again, most writs of certiorari are denied with a short written order.

Death row inmates may make multiple appeals at the same time, and some have gained years using these tactics to challenge their sentencing. Some inmates have even attacked the death penalty itself, calling it cruel and unusual punishment, halting their execution for even decades.

Since 1977, Alabama has only had 5 death row convictions overturned. The latest was Wesley Quick, who was acquitted in 2003 after three trials and multiple appeals.

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