A Capital Issue 

Confusing innocence with fairness and mercy in the Sedley Alley case.

Sedley Alley has a name right out of a Charles Dickens novel, a conviction for a crime fit for Jack the Ripper, and a support group worthy of Mother Teresa.

It seems there is no convicted killer in Memphis so heinous that he does not have supporters willing to throw out evidence, trials, and appeals and pronounce him innocent.

Like Sedley Alley, convicted of raping, stabbing, and strangling 19-year-old Suzanne Marie Collins in 1985. Last week, he won a 15-day reprieve, hours before he was scheduled to die by lethal injection.

Like Damien Echols, convicted along with two others of killing and mutilating three young boys in West Memphis in 1993. Some rock musicians are doing benefit concerts for the imprisoned Satanist turned memoirist.

Like James Earl Ray, convicted of murdering Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. but embraced, literally, in his last years by members of the King family.

Something about these post-conviction public appeals and 11th-hour debates rings false, simplistic, and even cynical. A little spin is applied to gloss over boxes of evidence and years of appeals. Not only is the convicted killer exculpated, suspicion is cast on someone else -- Suzanne Collins' boyfriends, the parents of the murdered boys, the Army and the Green Berets -- on flimsy evidence, bogus evidence, or no evidence at all.

Alley's defenders include the grassroots organizing group Tennessee Coalition Against State Killing (TCASK) and the Innocence Project. Alley gave a confession, pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity, was convicted by a jury that saw and heard the evidence, lost four appeals, and did not begin to assert his innocence for 17 years. Prison has apparently cured his mental illness and allowed him to get his story straight.

TCASK and the Innocence Project also challenged the prosecutors in the case and Governor Phil Bredesen. "What are they afraid of?" asked Randy Tatel of TCASK in an e-mail about Alley's case sent to news organizations. Alley's attorney, federal public defender Kelley Henry, said it is so unlikely that he is the killer that she cannot even hold that thought in her head.

The Innocence Project has helped free scores of prisoners wrongly convicted of murder, but this is where they lose me. You can believe that police, prosecutors, and judges would coerce confessions, ignore exonerating evidence, and let an innocent man die rather than admit a mistake, but you can't believe that Sedley Alley might lie?

I don't think Shelby County prosecutors and Bredesen are afraid of anything. I think they're concerned about the judicial system of evidence gathering, investigation, grand-jury presentation, trial by jury, and review by appellate courts being undermined by incessant appeals. And I think they do believe that sometimes murderers lie.

Even within Alley's camp there is disagreement over whether DNA testing would be conclusive one way or the other. Shelby County district attorney Bill Gibbons predicted that DNA testing, if it occurs, would likely prolong Alley's case for years. The parents of Collins have already been broken financially and in spirit.

DNA testing is the most recent in a long and probably endless number of Alley's avenues to appeal. He previously argued multiple personalities and was convicted by a jury. He argued that the trial judge was biased; another judge reviewed the evidence and supported the verdict. He claimed his previous lawyers were ineffective because they didn't give jurors the Full Monty about his underdeveloped penis and other maladies. The appeal was rejected.

Moral opposition to the death penalty as state-sanctioned killing has led to prohibitions in several states since 1846, when Michigan banned it. The United States Supreme Court outlawed capital punishment in 1972 and cleared the way for states to reinstate it in 1976.

There has been only one execution in Tennessee since then. For whatever reasons, Tennessee prosecutors, judges, and five governors have been reluctant to hasten the pace of executions. Bredesen said he believes Alley is guilty. If Gibbons is correct and the reprieve lasts years instead of 15 days, the governor could be spared the burden of acting on a request for clemency.

If that happens, so be it. But extending the lives of prisoners on death row and asserting their innocence are two different things.

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