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Death-Penalty Case Emits a Foul Odor in Alabama

By       Message Roger Shuler     Permalink    (# of views)   3 comments

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Cross Posted at Legal Schnauzer

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Nothing will cure you of support for the death penalty quite like an encounter with a corrupt judge. And nothing will give you pause quite like seeing a demonstrably corrupt judge in charge of a capital-murder case.

J. Michael Joiner is the circuit judge in Shelby County, Alabama, who changed my views on the death penalty. Joiner soon will determine whether a man lives or dies, and that should be terrifying to every citizen who cares about fundamental democratic principles.
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It is particularly alarming in light of peculiar actions in the case of Ryan Gerald Russell, who was convicted last Friday in the 2008 death of Katherine Helen Gillespie, his 11-year-old cousin. The jury is scheduled to return to court this morning to recommend a sentence--death or life in prison without parole. Joiner can accept or reject the jury's recommendation when he sentences Russell at a later date.

Press reports about the trial raise numerous questions. Did Russell receive a legitimate defense? Was the investigation tainted by gross incompetence? Did evidence prove that Russell intentionally killed a child for whom he was legal guardian?

Here is the most alarming question for us: Did a corrupt judge cut corners and twist arms in order to get the desired outcome in Shelby County's first capital-murder trial in roughly 10 years? Joiner is the judge who was at the heart of my legal headaches, so I've seen firsthand how crooked he can be.
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In a heavily conservative county, it is important for Joiner, Sheriff Chris Curry, and District Attorney Robbie Owens to burnish their "tough on crime" bonafides. Is it beyond them to cook a murder case in order to score political points? The answer, in my view, is a resounding no.

The death of Katherine Helen Gillespie is a sad and tragic story. She was born through artificial insemination to a mother who died when she was 7 years old. She did not have a father, so she lived with her maternal grandmother until the summer of 2007. At that point, the grandmother developed signs of dementia, and Gillespie came to live in Inverness with the 37-year-old Russell, a distant cousin who was single and reportedly planned to adopt her.

Katherine Gillespie had been at summer camp on June 16, 2008, and it appeared Russell was going to be late picking her up. A camp counselor later testified that Gillespie was concerned as it got closer to 6 that evening, and Russell had not picked her up, but she was happy and smiled when he made it on time.

Three teenagers reported later that evening being rear-ended by an SUV. When they followed the SUV, it went to Russell's residence. Two of the teens, Andrew Stone and Robert "Bo" Montiel, later testified that a young girl, presumably Gillespie, got out the SUV and asked them in a tearful voice not to call the police about the collision. They said Russell stayed in the vehicle and eventually backed it into the garage.

One of Russell's ex girlfriends went to the house after relatives told her they had not been able to reach him for several days. She discovered Katherine's body inside the SUV.

A Shelby County jury deliberated 35 minutes before finding Russell guilty last Friday. It's hard to understand how a jury could come to such a quick decision when the investigation seemingly was handled by rejects from the O.J. Simpson case.

Don Gould, a retired evidence technician, admitted under cross examination that his team left behind four guns at the scene, including the one they now consider to be the murder weapon. Reports The Birmingham News:

Under questioning by defense attorney Mickey Johnson, Gould said that he considered that the crime scene was successfully processed despite four guns being left behind including one that officials now say is the murder weapon. The processing did recover 37 guns, including one that was initially considered the murder weapon.

"To me it was because I found everything possible, I could find," Gould said of the evidence recovery. The gun considered the murder weapon, a .40-caliber Glock, was found months later hidden under a couch when a family member of Russell's removed his belongings from the house.

Yes, one of the defendant's family members found what is believed to be the murder weapon months after the fact--and the investigative team initially misidentified the murder weapon. But a jury still reached a decision in only 35 minutes?

It probably did not help Russell's cause that his court-appointed attorneys chose to put on no defense. Not only did they decide not to put Russell himself on the stand, they put on zero defense--no witnesses, no evidence, zilch. Reports The Birmingham News:

Mickey Johnson, one of Russell's court-appointed attorneys, said there was no reason for the defense to call any witnesses or for Russell to take the stand himself because the defense doesn't think the prosecution has put on any evidence that shows the shooting was intentional.

"It's always a mistake to attempt to rebut something that hasn't been shown," Johnson said.

Under normal circumstances, Johnson's explanation might sound reasonable. But I've seen how "justice" is practiced in Shelby County--and the decision to put on no defense for Russell smells funny to me.

Consider my experience with Judge Joiner on a relatively minor matter--a property-related civil issue with my criminally inclined neighbor. When the neighbor, Mike McGarity, sued me, it was readily apparent he had no case--and the lawsuit had to be dismissed (summary judgment) on at least eight to 10 grounds.

When my attorneys filed a motion for summary judgment, which was properly executed and supported with relevant evidence via affidavits, McGarity responded with no timely evidence. That meant summary judgment had to be granted and the case dismissed. But Joiner refused to follow black-letter law and denied my motion, without explanation.

The case had to be granted on so many legal grounds, that I filed two more motions for summary judgments, citing distinct issues of fact and law. McGarity did not respond to either motion--no evidence, no legal response, nothing. Under the law, my evidence had to be taken as uncontroverted and the case dismissed. Joiner again refused to follow black-letter law, denying my motion without explanation. The case wound up going to trial, costing my wife and me (and Alabama taxpayers) tens of thousands of dollars.

Why did Joiner take such blatantly unlawful actions? It was probably because McGarity's attorney, William E. Swatek, is one of several "local counsel" types who seem to receive all kinds of favors at the Shelby County Courthouse.

Multiple sources have told me that Mickey Johnson also fits into the "local counsel" crowd, and like Swatek, is buddies with Joiner. I'm told that Johnson, unlike Swatek, actually can be a competent lawyer when he sets his mind to it. But I wonder if someone encouraged him not to set his mind to it in the Ryan Gerald Russell case.

After getting an eyeful of Judge Mike Joiner's chicanery in my own case, I decided that America no longer needs the death penalty. If we have judges who can butcher routine civil matters, we don't need to put those same judges in charge of life-and-death matters.

My guess is that a Shelby County jury today will recommend the death penalty for Ryan Gerald Russell. I suspect Joiner will go along with that recommendation a few weeks down the road.

Why should I care? Russell apparently has been a problem drinker for a long time, and evidence certainly suggests that he might have been responsible for Katherine Gillespie's death. Under Alabama law, a murder  can become a capital offense when the victim is under 14 years of age.

But was this a murder at all? Under Alabama law, murder generally requires "intent to cause the death of another person." Was such intent shown beyond a reasonable doubt? And could any jury possibly determine that in 35 minutes?

Martin Luther King once said: "An injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere."

I think you could amend that slightly to produce a similar thought: "An injustice by a judge in one case, raises questions about that judge's actions in all cases."

Mike Joiner is not fit to judge a cow-milking contest at a county fair. He has demonstrated that he lacks a functioning conscience. That such a man could wind up ordering a man to be put to death . . . well, that should give all of us pause.


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I live in Birmingham, Alabama, and work in higher education. I became interested in justice-related issues after experiencing gross judicial corruption in Alabama state courts. This corruption has a strong political component. The corrupt judges are (more...)

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