How An Alabama Trial Riddled With Error Almost Ended In Capital Punishment

Montez Spradley (Credit: AL.com)

In 2008, Montez Spradley was convicted for the murder of a grandmother shot dead in Center Point, Alabama. Although the jury recommended a sentence of life in prison without parole, an Alabama trial judge rejected the recommendation and sentenced Spradley to death. But that death sentence was struck down along with the conviction, when an appeals panel deemed the trial so error- and bias-ridden that it was a “miscarriage of justice.”

Now, as Spradley’s case enters the early stages of retrial, the ACLU has uncovered even more potentially damning evidence about prosecutors’ handling of his case, revealing yet another way in which commonplace prosecutor misconduct can lead to improper sentences to death. Spradley’s ex-girlfriend testified this week that she was offered a $10,000 reward in exchange for testifying against Spradley, and that prosecutors threatened to take away her children and prosecute her for perjury if she did not do so. AL.com reports:

At the court hearing today Alisha Booker testified that she lied at the 2008 trial that Spradley had confessed to her in a church about killing Jason.

Booker testified that after having denied any knowledge of the murder to police in 2004, she stepped forward later to tell police that Spradley had admitted it because she was mad at him. She said that at the time she stepped forward she was pregnant with her and Spradley’s third child. She said she learned he was cheating on her.

“I just felt he was doing me wrong at the moment,” Booker said.

As she began to testify that she had lied in her 2008 testimony, Wallace asked her if she knew that she could possibly be charged with perjury. After meeting in the judge’s office with her attorney for a few minutes she returned to the stand and continued her testimony. […]

Booker said she had told law enforcement that she had lied and didn’t want to testify. She said they told her it was too late and that she had to stick to the story or she could go to jail for a long time and her kids put in foster homes. She said the detectives had told her she was a single mother and should take the reward money.

A prosecutor and the lead detective in the homicide case denied the allegations during today’s hearing.

The rewards offered to Booker were part of two local programs to incentivize witnesses to come forward with information about the crime. These rewards programs can be a helpful crime-fighting resource, when used properly. But they also create perverse incentives to provide false information, particularly when a witness merely provides testimony that is not corroborated by others or accompanied by physical evidence. Because prosecutors maintain primary control over access to this and other crucial information about a case, they are constitutionally required to divulge to defendants the existence of such a reward, or of any other exculpatory evidence, even though it may undercut prosecutors’ case. In this case, prosecutors dispute many facts, but they do not dispute that Booker was given a reward, nor that they failed to disclose that reward.

The under-appreciated U.S. Supreme Court decision that articulated this prosecutor obligation celebrated its 50th anniversary this week, but punishment for prosecutors who fail to comply with Brady v. Maryland remains largely non-existent, meaning those inclined to withhold evidence are still unlikely to be deterred by the law, and perhaps even less likely to be discovered.  This is one of several cases to reveal these blatant Brady violations even in instances where a defendant’s life is at stake, and in which judges subject to the politics of re-election use a dangerous Alabama policy to “override” jury decisions about the death penalty. And while Spradley earned a retrial, another judge exercising judicial override could once again sentence him to death.