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.
The remarks below have been edited for length and clarity.
National Law Journal: Your firm has been actively involved in handling death penalty cases since 1988. How has this type of pro bono work evolved over the years?
Chris Christie: That’s when I joined the firm. One of the other associates a couple of years senior had a death penalty case he was working on. David Hymer [now a partner] successfully completed that case in the mid-90s, working in conjunction with Bryan Stevenson with the Equal Justice Initiative. EJI is a nonprofit that is involved in issues like this full time. The lawyers who work there represent people on death row or other similar matters.
The second case started in 1993. The managing partner here asked me to serve as local counsel for a New York firm representing somebody on death row. That man’s name was Victor Stephens. In or around 2000, the American Bar Association’s death penalty representation project started recruiting firms from outside Alabama to represent people without counsel in Alabama. And Bradley Arant made a strategic decision that it could be more effective working as active local counsel with other firms hesitant to take on an Alabama case because of travel and not being familiar with the courts.
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.
When we got into the investigation, post conviction, we interviewed the jurors who were struck, and it was discovered that we were able to identify — of the jurors who would cooperate and talk to us — that for four of them the reasons given for the strikes were not true. One of the jurors [purportedly] had a son who had been involved in criminal activity, and at the state habeas corpus hearing we proved she didn’t have a son.
[Subsequently,] Victor Stephens confessed to being there, and he reached a plea agreement where he pleaded guilty to a lesser felony and has been sentenced to life and has continued to serve his time.
NLJ: Alabama has a number of unique characteristics when it comes to death penalty cases. What are they?
C.C.: Alabama has the most people per capita of any state on death row. It’s also the only state that overrides jury recommendations and sentences to death. Delaware and Florida also have laws that allow judges to do that, but they don’t do that. Over 20 percent of the people on death row in Alabama are judicial overides.
Alabama also does not offer any funding for legal representation for a death row inmate post conviction. Part of the reason why you have a need for these firms in other places to be representing people in Alabama on death row is because of the high number of people on death row, the lack of funding and judicial overides.
NLJ: How do judicial overides affect cases you handle, like the one against Victor Stephens?
C.C.: To some extent, judicial overides increase the number of people on death row. It creates more of a need. It also raises a lot of questions legally that you wouldn’t have in other jurisdictions. Whether the judicial overide is consistent with the most recent U.S. Supreme Court precedent is a legal issue that needs to be worked out. Ring v. Arizona is a U.S. Supreme Court case that says a jury has to make all the factual findings in a death penalty case, so there’s still legal issues related to the judicial overide.
There are numerous cases where that legal issue had been raised. It was an issue in the Victor Stephens case that might have been addressed had he not gotten a new trial on the jury-selection issue.
The problem was that Ring v. Arizona was not retroactive, so if you were convicted of a capital crime before 2002 and had a judicial overide, unless there were some circumstances where you could point to a fact finding to be made, you couldn’t rely on Ring to get a new trial or new sentencing. I do think there’s a serious question as to whether the Alabama statue with its overide provision is constitutional. At some point there will be more U.S. Supreme Court cases on that issue.
NLJ: The death penalty has been banned in some states, in part due to concerns about the use of lethal injection as an execution method. Do you see Alabama ever banning the death penalty?
C.C.: Not in the short term. It’s very hard to predict what will happen 10 to 15 years from now. Not in the curent political climate. But I wouldn’t be surprised if something happens where the law changes 10 to 15 years from now.
Contact Amanda Bronstad at firstname.lastname@example.org.