An Arkansas man who spent the past 25 years on death row for the 1996 murder of a prison guard cannot be executed by the state after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled refused to hear the state’s appeal against a federal court decision overturning his death sentence.
Alvin Bernall Jackson, 51, was serving a life sentence for the July 1989 shooting death of Charles Colclasure, 47, a Little Rock businessman, when he stabbed the prison guard to death Scott Grimes, 41, in 1996 when Grimes stepped in to interfere in a fight.
According to reports at the time, Grimes was trying to break up a fight between Jackson and another inmate from Tucker’s maximum security unit when he was stabbed twice in the chest with a “rod”, a knife made homemade made from a sharpened piece. of metal. He died less than an hour later in the prison infirmary.
Jackson was later sentenced to death for Grimes’ murder. The Grimes unit in Newport was named for the Pine Bluff native.
Jackson’s attorney, Jeff Rosenzweig of Little Rock, was appointed to represent Jackson in 1998 under Rule 37.5 of the Arkansas Criminal Procedure Rules, which states that defendants in death penalty cases must be accompanied by court-appointed counsel for post-conviction proceedings if the defendant is indigent.
“I was appointed after his direct appeal was decided,” Rosenzweig said. “In fact, he was the first accused of Rule 37.5, the rule that for the first time, persons mandated appointed post-conviction attorneys in Arkansas in death cases.”
Rosenzweig said that after Jackson’s appeals were denied by the Arkansas Court of Appeals and the Arkansas Supreme Court, he filed a writ of habeas corpus with the US District Court in Little Rock, where the case was heard by U.S. District Judge Susan Webber Wright. He said Wright ruled against Jackson three times and was overturned each time by the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals.
“The fourth time she ruled correctly for us and the state appealed and lost in the 8th Circuit and again this week in the United States Supreme Court,” he said.
Wright filed a stay of execution and commuted Jackson’s sentence to life without parole on March 23, 2020. His decision was appealed by the state the following month. On August 13, 2021, the 8th Circuit upheld Wright’s decision.
On January 18, the state appealed to the United States Supreme Court, filing a writ of certiorari with the High Court asking it to review the lower court’s decision. On May 24, the United States Supreme Court denied the state’s petition, which upheld the lower courts’ decision overturning Jackson’s death sentence and which Rosenzweig said should end the case.
“It should be,” he said. “Technically, the Attorney General could ask them to reconsider, but other than that, that’s the end of the matter.”
Rosenzweig said the effect of the ruling is to declare Jackson ineligible for execution due to intellectual disability or mental retardation, meaning he is unable to understand the reasoning behind his execution.
According to the Death Penalty Information Center, the Supreme Court ruled in 2002 that it would be cruel and unusual punishment to sentence people with intellectual disabilities to death. The high court cited the higher likelihood of inaccurate factual determinations of guilt and individual culpability due to the increased potential for mentally disabled defendants to “unwittingly confess to crimes they did not commit”.
The ruling also suggested that “[m]Mentally retarded defendants may be less able to provide meaningful assistance to their attorney and are generally poor witnesses, and their behavior may create an unwarranted impression of lack of remorse for their crimes.”
Writing for the majority in that 2002 decision, Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens wrote: “People with mental retardation often know the difference between right and wrong and are fit to stand trial. , but, by definition, they have reduced capacities to understand and process information. , to communicate, to ignore mistakes and learn from experience, to engage in logical reasoning, to control one’s impulses and to understand the reactions of others. Their deficiencies do not warrant exemption from criminal sanctions, but diminish their personal culpability.
Rosenzweig said the Supreme Court’s rejection of the state’s appeal did not take any of the specifics of Jackson’s case, but only said the court denied the state’s motion asking the court to review the decision. of the 8th circuit.
“So the 8th Circuit ruling in our favor stands,” he said. “All you can say about the denial of certiorari is that the Supreme Court said it was not a matter for them to weigh in, that the 8th Circuit decision was correct.”
Rosenzweig said the decision was not only welcome but, after nearly 25 years, a long time coming.
“I was 45 when I was appointed,” he said. “I will be 70 in September.”