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Convicted murderer appealing sentence

By Phillip Rawls
Associated Press Writer

MONTGOMERY — An Alabama man convicted of four murders is trying to get out of his death sentence because his teenage co-defendant had his death sentence removed by a U.S. Supreme Court decision.

The new legal arguments by Michael Brandon Samra are fueling tensions between the attorney general and county prosecutors, and they mark the second time an Alabama death row inmate has raised the equal treatment issue in hopes of avoiding execution.

In the new case, Attorney General Troy King has asked a judge to bar Shelby County District Attorney Robby Owens from testifying at a court hearing involving Samra's appeal of his death sentence.

King said Owens' actions "have now resulted in providing the most brutal murderers in our state with a new excuse to appeal their sentences."

Owens, a Republican like King, said the attorney general is mixing politics with law.

"In my judgment he has a tendency to latch on to issues he wants to make political points on," Owens said Thursday. But he added that he doesn't believe King is succeeding in making the points.

The dispute stems from a 2005 decision by the U.S. Supreme Court that barred the death penalty for anyone who was under 18 when they committed their crime. The ruling caused 13 young killers in Alabama, including two from Shelby County, to have their sentences switched from death to life in prison without parole.

Last month, King and Owens got crossed up because Owens advocated a change in sentence for LaSamuel Gamble because his accomplice, Marcus Presley, had his death sentence changed on grounds that he was 16 when he killed two people at a pawn shop.

Owens said Gamble, who was 18, didn't kill anyone and didn't deserve the death penalty if the gunman didn't get it.

King accused Owens of shirking his duty and filed court papers to try to keep Gamble on death row.

Earlier this month, Samra's attorneys cited the Gamble case when they went to court to try to undo his death sentence. They argued that "his death sentence is excessive and disproportionate" because his accomplice, Mark Anthony Duke, got his sentence reduced due to being 16 when the murders occurred. Samra was 19 when the murders happened in 1997.

The two were convicted of capital murder of four people and sentenced to death. Trial testimony showed they plotted to wipe out Duke's household because Duke was mad at his father for refusing him use of the family vehicle.

According to the testimony, Duke shot to death his father, Randy Duke, and his father's finance, Dedra Hunt, and then cut the throat of her 6-year-old daughter, Chelisa Nicole Hunt. Samra shot Ms. Hunt, but it wasn't the fatal shot, and cut the throat of 7-year-old Chelsea Marie Hunt while Duke held her down.

In court papers, King argued that Samra's "heinous" actions justify the death penalty even if Duke doesn't face death. He also made the unusual request to prohibit Owens from testifying at any hearing on Samra's appeal.

"These motions are necessary because — though Mr. Owens in recent days has changed his position and told the Hunt family that he will not side with the barbaric child murderer Brandon Samra — this new position is a complete change from his original position when he said Samra, like Gamble, in 'fairness' should be re-sentenced," King said in a statement Thursday.

Owens said King is incorrect. He said he told the Hunt family he would have to consider the issue because of the Supreme Court ruling, but after reviewing it, he decided Samra's case was substantially different from Gamble's "because Samra killed someone."

Owens said there is no reason to bar him from testifying at a court hearing in Samra's case because he would advocate that the death penalty remain. He also doubts any judge would strike down Samra's sentence.

King points out in his court filings that state law allows a person to be executed even if a co-defendant is not.

Owens said King is technically correct, but he remains convinced that Gamble shouldn't get the death penalty because his execution would help opponents of the death penalty.

"If I allowed the execution of a non-shooter when a shooter has been taken off death row, the people who oppose the death penalty would make a poster child out of him," Owens said.

King decried Owens' position and criticized the Alabama District Attorneys Association for siding with him in the Gamble case.

"As a result, they have provided cold blooded murders a new way to attack their sentences and to attempt to escape the justice delivered by juries and judges," he said.

Randy Hillman, executive director of the District Attorneys Association, declined comment Thursday.

King and the District Attorneys Association had opposing news conference about the Gamble case last month at the Statehouse.

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

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