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Billy Joe Magwood will be leaving Alabama's death row after 30 years. The 11th Circuit has overturned the convicted cop-killer's death sentence, ordering the imposition of a new, non-capital sentence.
The U.S. Supreme Court had originally remanded the case for re-sentencing last year, but Alabama prosecutors objected to the district court's subsequent ruling. The 11th Circuit affirmed that ruling, finding that the 1979 murder of Sheriff C.F. Gantham was not eligible for capital punishment.
The court's decision is based on the fair-warning requirement imposed by the Due Process Clause. It prohibits the retroactive application of judicial interpretations of criminal statutes. If an interpretation was unforeseeable at the time of the crime, it cannot be applied to the defendant. The defendant is said not to have had fair warning.
Alabama's death penalty law had two distinct sections in 1979. In one, juries were given the power to impose the death penalty on persons who murdered police officers. In the other, judges were directed to affirm the death penalty only when certain aggravated factors were present.
Billy Joe Magwood's crime did not include any of the listed factors even though he killed an officer. Even so, the judge affirmed the jury's death sentence.
In doing so, he relied on an Alabama Supreme Court case handed down a year after Magwood committed his crime. That case implied that such a sentence was permissible despite the plain language of the statute.
The 11th Circuit found that the application of the Alabama case violated the fair-warning requirement. The ruling was an unforeseeable interpretation of the state's death penalty statute, and thus could not retroactively be applied.
Billy Joe Magwood is thus entitled to a new sentence. He's spent over 30 years in prison, so it's possible that he will be released. But it's more likely that he'll spend the rest of his life behind bars.