2007 Archive

Death Penalty Clinic Helps Secure Release of Client from Alabama Prison

Boalt's Death Penalty Clinic and its co-counsel, the Southern Center for Human Rights (SCHR) in Atlanta, Georgia, helped win freedom for an Alabama inmate, who was released on February 8 after serving eight years of a life sentence.

Walter Lee Rhone, Jr., was convicted of capital murder in 1999 in connection with a drive-by shooting, and sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. Death Penalty Clinic Associate Director Ty Alper met Rhone in 2004, when Alper served as a staff attorney at the Southern Center, and took Rhone on as a client. Alper successfully represented Rhone before the Alabama Supreme Court, which held that Rhone had the right to file an amended post-conviction petition. The ruling had significant impact on dozens of subsequent post-conviction cases in Alabama, and continues to be cited in support of death row inmates' crucial right to amend such post-conviction petitions.

Victory in hand from the state's high court, investigators at SCHR subsequently uncovered evidence that at least two jurors improperly visited the crime scene, and that one of the jurors relied in part on that information to find Rhone guilty. On July 18, 2006, Alabama Circuit Court Judge John E. Rochester held that such behavior constituted juror misconduct sufficient to warrant a new trial, and negotiations with the district attorney led to a disposition that reduced Rhone's sentence to time served, leading to his release on February 8.

Alper credited the work of clinic students Jamie Popper '05, Laura Clark '05, Michael Lepie '06, and Angel Sevilla '05 for helping to achieve the successful result. The students drafted memos and pleadings based on SCHR's investigation into multiple instances of misconduct.

Elisabeth Semel, director of Boalt's Death Penalty Clinic, commented, "This achievement is but the latest example of the excellence of Boalt's clinical program—how we teach, how our students learn, and the contributions that we make in the lives of our clients and, on a larger scale, toward the goal of equal justice."