By Stephen Cooper
October is a pleasant time of year to be in Alabama – especially if you love killing. Sure, happening times can be had in pumpkin patches and at the Kentuck, Cotton and Boll Weevil festivals – and Oktoberfest is always well-celebrated with bawdy bamas, barrels-worth of beer, and brats – but now al.com, Alabama’s largest media outlet, is reporting that Alabamians can ring in the change of season with back-to-back executions. Specifically: “The Alabama Supreme Court has scheduled October execution dates for two death row inmates. Jeffrey Borden is set to be executed on October 5, and Torrey McNabb on October 19.”
One capital punishment cheerleader ginning up her pom-poms for these back-to-back killings is Mobile County District Attorney Ashley Rich. Rich recently waxed on about her love for the death penalty to a class of cops learning how to handle digital evidence in violent crime cases. Standing alongside Alabama’s rookie Attorney General Steve Marshall, Rich remarked, as if reflecting on her favorite pie, “Well, I’m kind of fond of the death penalty.”
D.A. Rich wasn’t asked a question to logically elicit her blood-lusting, full-throated hankering for state-sanctioned murder; rather, Rich volunteered her affinity for the death penalty to the officers as “she couldn’t stay at the event because she had to be in court later . . . in a capital murder case that was being retried.” Perturbed about having to attend a court hearing concerning the reversal of Garrett Dotch’s 2008 murder conviction, a case she prosecuted, Rich complained: “We got the death penalty. And we have this pesky little group called the Equal Justice Initiative [EJI] that likes to hire fancy lawyers in New York pro bono and spend millions of dollars trying to repeal the death penalty in the state of Alabama.” Venting further, D.A. Rich said: “I think we need the death penalty . . . so we’re continuing to fight the Equal Justice Initiative and big law firms who have millions of dollars and want to come down and reverse all of our death penalty cases.”
Putting aside (1) D.A. Rich’s malcontent over the world-renowned, award-winning work of that “pesky” EJI group spearheaded by civil rights attorney Bryan Stevenson, and its laudable, effective efforts fighting not only the death penalty, but racism and injustice across Alabama and America, and (2) the fact that legions of individual EJI attorneys, appointed and volunteer private attorneys in Alabama, and also federal public defenders (including myself, once) have won reversals of Alabama death penalty cases – not just “big law firms” – Rich’s histrionic about there being any “repeal” of the death penalty in Alabama, is overly melodramatic at best.
On its website, the Death Penalty Information Center observes: “Judicial override of jury recommendations of life, the imposition of death sentences after non-unanimous jury sentencing recommendations, and prosecutorial misconduct, race bias, and ineffective assistance of counsel have made Mobile County, Alabama, one of the most prolific death sentencing counties in the United States . . . . Just two prosecutors, Ashley Rich and Jo Beth Murphree, account for 90% of the Mobile death penalty cases decided on appeal since 2006, and both have had death sentences overturned for improper prosecutorial practices.” In July of 2011, D.A. Rich was even celebrated for her passion pursuing poisonous injections with her selection by the Association of Government Attorneys in Capital Litigation for its “Best of the Best” award. (Though Rich received this national award in part for obtaining a death sentence in the aforementioned Dotch case that was subsequently overturned, there is no indication Rich was stripped of her award, or that she’s giving it back.)
Moreover, as I have written elsewhere, after a hiatus of more than two years, Alabama has been busy “ritualizing killing” long before the announcement of Borden and McNabb’s forthcoming execution dates. Since the possibly torturous execution of Christopher Brooks in January of 2016, the death chamber in that hell on earth Holman Prison in Atmore, Alabama, has been busily humming along; it has claimed three more lives since Brooks’s, including the irrefutable torture of Ronald Bert Smith in December of 2016. (Strapped to a gurney like it was a stake, Smith acted just like you might expect someone being burned alive from the inside out, heaving, coughing, clenching his fists, moving his lips, and opening an eye during an excruciatingly savage thirteen-minute death rattle.) Additionally, it was just this summer that a patently unfair new death penalty law aimed at accelerating executions in Alabama by gutting death row inmates’s rights to appeal their convictions was signed into law. If D.A. Rich is “fond” of the death penalty, she’s not only been having her cake, she’s been eating it for a disturbingly long, dehumanizing stretch now; the signing of the so-called “Fair Just Act” into law was the rancid cherry on top.
None of this changes the fact that Alabama is less muggy and buggy – and can be a very nice place to visit – especially in October. But, should you find yourself having a brat and a beer with D.A. Ashley Rich and a brouhaha breaks out, be careful! Nietzsche counseled: “Mistrust all in whom the impulse to punish is powerful . . . the hangman and the bloodhound look out of their faces. Mistrust all who talk much of their justice! Verily, their souls lack more than honey.”
Stephen Cooper is a former D.C. public defender who worked as an assistant federal public defender in Alabama between 2012 and 2015. He has contributed to numerous magazines and newspapers in the United States and overseas. He writes full-time and lives in Woodland Hills, California. Follow him on Twitter at @SteveCooperEsq