On death row for 30 years, convicted Alabama cop-killer wins another appeal

A federal appeals court ruled Monday that convicted cop-killer Billy Joe Magwood, on death row since 1981, was not properly charged under Alabama statutes to qualify for capital punishment.

A convicted cop-killer on Alabama’s death row has again won an appeal to have his death sentence overturned.

A federal appeals court in Atlanta ruled on Monday that Billy Joe Magwood, who has been on death row since 1981, was not properly charged under Alabama statutes to qualify for capital punishment.

At one point in the 1980s, Mr. Magwood was within eight days of his scheduled execution.

“Based on a clear reading of Alabama law, we conclude that Magwood was not eligible for the death penalty,” the 11th US Circuit Court of Appeals said.

The three-judge panel said Magwood was entitled to receive a new, non-capital sentence because his death sentence violated the fair-warning requirement of the Constitution’s due process clause.

Magwood is one of 198 inmates on Alabama’s death row. He’s been there more than 30 years, longer than all but two other death-row inmates.

The appeals court ruling follows a June 2010, 5-to-4 decision by the US Supreme Court, remanding the Magwood case to the lower courts so he could be resentenced. State prosecutors objected, once again, and appealed to the 11th Circuit.

It was that appeal that the 11th Circuit rejected on Monday.

There is no dispute over whether Magwood murdered Coffee County Sheriff C. F. “Neil” Grantham in 1979. Magwood had earlier served time in the Coffee County Jail and had a history of mental illness. The prisoner decided that Sheriff Grantham had wrongly jailed him and that he would exact revenge.

Shortly after his release from jail, according to a witness, Magwood walked up to the sheriff, shot him in the face, and then fled the scene.

Magwood was convicted of capital murder in 1981, and sentenced to die.

The problem with his death sentence was that Alabama law required judges to weight aggravating and mitigating circumstances before imposing a death sentence. The law required the sentencing judge to cite which aggravating factor – specifically listed in the Alabama statute – applied to the convicted murderer.

There were no aggravating factors in the statute that applied to Magwood’s circumstances. But by the time of Magwood’s trial in 1981, the Alabama Supreme Court had ruled that the murder of an on-duty sheriff because of his official acts qualified as an aggravation sufficient to justify a death sentence.

The sentencing judge cited the state supreme court’s decision and applied it to Magwood.

In the appeal, Magwood’s lawyers argued that the sentencing judge acted unfairly by relying on a new interpretation of Alabama law in 1981 that did not exist two years earlier in 1979 when Magwood committed his crime.

Had it not been for the state supreme court’s ruling, the lawyers said, Magwood would not qualify for a death sentence. To use the ruling against him violated the constitutional requirement that the state not change the rules to ensure he’d receive a harsher punishment.

That’s essentially what US District Judge Myron Thompson ruled four years ago in 2007 when the judge reversed Magwood’s death sentence.

“The murder of Sheriff Grantham was undeniably a horrific event; it was a terrible crime against the sheriff, his family, and the citizenry at large,” Judge Thompson wrote. “However, the fundamental requirements of due process… apply even to those convicted of the most serious crimes.”

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