The Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals recently reversed the capital murder conviction and death sentence for a 23-year-old man charged in a 2008 Dothan murder.
Randy Susskind, an attorney with the Equal Justice Initiative, said the Court of Criminal Appeals issued the reversal for their client, 23-year-old Tawuan Justin Townes.
A Houston County jury convicted Townes of capital murder in March 2011, and then voted 10-2 to sentence him to death. Circuit Court Judge Larry Anderson affirmed the jury’s decision and sentenced Townes to death.
Susskind said the reversal gives their client, who has been on death row for three years, a whole new trial.
Dothan police investigators arrested Townes on Nov. 14, 2008, charging him with capital murder burglary in the shooting death of Christopher James Woods a day earlier.
“It just means that he is going to get an opportunity to have a fair trial, and we think it’s the right decision,” Susskind said.
Susskind said the court’s opinion said they found the trial judge improperly instructed the jury in regard to capital murder.
“The judge basically told the jury that they must presume that he had the intent to kill,” Susskind said. “The judge should have told the jury that they had to make the determination about whether or not that he had the specific intent to kill.”
Susskind said no new trial date has been set, and it’s unclear if lawyers with the Equal Justice Initiative will represent Townes at his newly granted trial.
“When we were working on the appeal we read the transcript,” Susskind said. “The transcript contained the improper instruction, and we pointed it out to the court.”
Houston County District Attorney Doug Valeska, who prosecuted the Townes case at trial, said the trial judge did not make an error in his instructions to the jury.
“I read the opinion and as I understand it’s been represented to me the judge did not say ‘you must,’” Valeska said. “Circuit Judge Anderson did not say they ‘must’. He said ‘may.’”
Valeska said the he believes the court reporter typed and took down the wrong word spoken by the judge during the jury instructions.
“In my opinion Circuit Judge Larry Anderson did not create error my using the word ‘must,’” Valeska said. “He did not say the wrong thing.”
Valeska said he’s contacted the Alabama Attorney’s General’s Office, which handles criminal cases on the appellate level, about what he understands actually happened.
“There was a typo in the court reporter’s typing of the jury’s instructions,” Valeska said. “It wasn’t ‘must’ because he said ‘may.’ The trial judge did not make a mistake.”
Valeska said there’s a recording of the court’s instructions read to the jury.
“It’s my opinion, once again I’m just the trial prosecutor, it will come back for a hearing,” Valeska said.