06/17/2010

A Look Back: SPLC Case Reformed Alabama's Death Penalty Law

Gilbert Beck was sentenced to die in Alabama's electric chair.

It was 1977, and a jury reached the verdict after hearing testimony about a murder involving Beck a year earlier. During the trial, Beck testified that an accomplice killed the victim during a robbery in Boaz, Ala. 

But the jury didn't have the option of finding Beck—a man who had never been convicted of a felony—guilty of anything less than capital murder. Alabama law wouldn't allow it. The jury had only two options under state law: Find Beck guilty of capital murder and trigger an automatic death sentence or let him walk free by acquitting him. 

For juries in capital murder cases, the choice was always between the death penalty and freedom. Not surprisingly this odd provision of Alabama's death penalty law became known as the "kill 'em or let 'em go" provision.

Thirty years ago this month, the Southern Poverty Law Center's appeal in the Beck case led to a U.S. Supreme Court decision declaring the "kill 'em or let 'em go" provision unconstitutional—a ruling that brought Beck a new trial and paved the way for new trials for many of the 43 people on Alabama's death row at the time.

"For death row inmates in Alabama, this was an incredibly important decision," said John Carroll, who served as SPLC legal director at the time and worked on the case. "That [provision] was just too much pressure" for a juror.

Defendants had legitimate worries that they might be sentenced to death, not because jurors believed it was warranted, but because it was the only way they could prevent a defendant guilty of a lesser offense from walking free. A media report from the 1980s noted that Alabama had a 96 percent conviction rate in first-degree murder cases.

The Alabama law was unusual. "It was the only one of its kind in the country," Carroll, who today serves as dean of Samford University's Cumberland School of Law, said in a recent interview. "It really is a very odd statute."

During the closing arguments of Beck's original trial in 1977, his defense attorney acknowledged that Beck was guilty of robbery but argued that he did not deserve the death penalty because he had not committed murder.

"The punishment they are trying to dish out far exceeds the culpability of Beck," the attorney argued, according to The Gadsden (Ala.) Times

Nevertheless, Beck was convicted, and the judge upheld the death sentence. Beck appeared to be destined for death row and, ultimately, the electric chair.

The SPLC appealed Beck's conviction in a state where the death penalty was, and still is, a hot-button issue that politicians used to show they were tough on criminals. Then-Gov. George Wallace had signed Alabama's death penalty statute into law in 1975, saying, "I hope we'll see some electrocutions in this state," according to a news report. During the late 1970s, a successful state attorney general candidate was reported as saying, "I'll fry (violent criminals) until their eyeballs pop out and smoke comes out their ears." 

Alabama courts upheld Beck's conviction and the statute. In late 1979, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear the case. SPLC attorneys argued that the state law was unconstitutional. The Court agreed and struck down the law in a 7-2 decision on June 20, 1980. It found that the failure of the Alabama law to allow the jury to find Beck guilty of a lesser offense created the risk that the jury would convict simply to avoid letting the defendant go free.

"[T]he failure to give the jury the 'third option' of convicting on a lesser included offense would seem inevitably to enhance the risk of an unwarranted conviction," the Court wrote. "Such a risk cannot be tolerated in a case in which the defendant's life is at stake."

The ruling resulted in a new trial for Beck and spared him the death penalty. The decision also paved the way for new trials of many of the state's death row prisoners convicted under the provision.

Thirty years later, the Beck case remains an important SPLC victory that had a significant impact on Alabama's criminal justice system, an impact that is still felt today.

"It was incredibly challenging work and incredibly important work," Carroll said of the case.