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Supreme Court won't hear death row inmates' claim

By Bob Johnson
Associated Press Writer

MONTGOMERY — The U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear an appeal Monday from several Alabama death row inmates who claimed they were not adequately represented by attorneys after their first round of appeals.

The justices made no comment as they declined to hear the inmates' claim that Alabama is the only state that does not provide death row inmates with attorneys during what is known as their indirect appeal.

Their attorney, Bryan Stevenson, said it's during the indirect round of appeals that inmates raise issues such as new evidence of innocence or lack of competent counsel at trial. State's attorneys have argued the inmates receive able legal help.

Federal lawsuit

The federal lawsuit was filed by death row inmate Christopher Barbour and several others. Barbour, convicted in 1992 of the rape and stabbing death of Thelma Bishop Roberts, 40, of Montgomery, came within two days of a scheduled execution in May 2001.

U.S. District Judge Myron Thompson issued a stay of execution after Barbour argued his appeal had been sidetracked because several lawyers had dropped out of his case.

Stevenson said not having a good attorney during the indirect appeal makes it difficult for inmates to raise some issues that might win them new trials or reverse their death sentences. Stevenson said the appeals are often handled by attorneys, sometimes from outside Alabama, who volunteer to represent the inmate without charge.

"We do not have a system that depends on volunteer judges or volunteer prosecutors," Stevenson said.

"We should not have a system that depends on volunteer defense attorneys."

The chief of the death penalty division of the Alabama attorney general's office, Clay Crenshaw, said most Alabama death row inmates are represented by highly competent attorneys and law firms.

The 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals had ruled against the inmates and the case was appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.

The lawsuit asked the courts to put a moratorium on deadlines for filing appeals until the state provided a system for inmates to be represented during the appeals process.

Representation

A brief filed with the Supreme Court by former Alabama Solicitor General Kevin C. Newsom said it's not true that many Alabama death row inmates are underrepresented during the appeals process.

"The reality is that, almost without fail, death-row inmates in fact have the assistance of superbly qualified counsel in preparing, presenting and litigating post-conviction challenges to their convictions and sentences," Newsom said in the brief.

Stevenson said he was disappointed by the Supreme Court decision Monday, but said he expects inmates to continue to pursue the issue.

"It's not over. They did not rule against us. They just declined to hear it at this time," Stevenson said.

Besides Barbour, other inmates named as plaintiffs in the lawsuit were James Borden, Eugene Clemmons, Gary Hart, James Callahan, Glenn Holladay, Tony Barksdale and Anthony Tyson.

Stevenson said Hart and Borden are no longer on death row — Hart because of a Supreme Court ruling that juveniles can't be executed and Borden because of court rulings prohibiting execution of mentally retarded individuals.

Copyright 2005 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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