That's the title of Amanda Bronstad's report in the National Law Journal.
In May, Victor Stephens, who is black, pleaded guilty to charges stemming from the shooting of a white store owner. The plea, which came after he had been granted a new trial, brought a life sentence but removed him permanently from death row in Alabama, where he was first sentenced in 1987.
Stephens' attorney, J.S. "Chris" Christie Jr., is a partner at Bradley Arant Boult Cummings in Birmingham, Ala., and co-chairman of the firm's pro bono committee. According to Christie, Stephens was the third inmate the firm has gotten off death row since it began handling capital cases in 1988. Christie talked to The National Law Journal about Bradley Arant's death penalty work, for which the firm will receive an exceptional service award from the American Bar Association's death penalty project next month.
NLJ: The firm has represented 19 people on death row in Alabama so far. How does that compare to the total number of people on death row in the state?
C.C.: Alabama has about 200 people on death row. The number changes. For example, Victor Stephens was taken off in May 2012, but two people were added. The exact number was 201, so about 11 percent of the people on death row.
NLJ: Of those 19 cases, one person was executed and two died in prison. Stephens is one of three people the firm has successfully gotten removed from death row. Talk about that case.
C.C.: This is something I worked on from 1993 to 2012. Victor Stephens in 1986 was part of robbing a convenience store. The store owner shot him and, while the store owner was reloading his gun, Victor Stephens shot the store owner with a .25-caliber pistol that he had. Victor Stephens confessed to shooting the store owner with a .25 pistol after being shot with a shot gun.
At his trial in 1987, he was convicted of capital murder. That night, they held a sentencing hearing. The jury recommended life without parole. The judge held the final sentencing until after he'd been nominated to the Court of Criminal Appeals and before the general election that fall, and sentenced Victor Stephens to death, overriding the jury's finding that he should be sentenced to life without parole. That went up through the normal appellate process and post conviction proceedings started — and that's when I got involved, in 1993.
NLJ: What was the legal argument that got him off death row?
C.C.: The argument on which he actually was awarded a new trial was on the jury selection. The prosecution used 21 of its 22 regular strikes, and its first 21 strikes were to remove blacks from the jury. His counsel made a timely objection, and the state offered what appeared to be race-neutral reasons for strikes of 21 blacks.