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OUR VIEW: Gov. Robert Bentley should commute death sentence of Derrick O'Neal Mason, as judge who presided over Mason's case suggests

OUR VIEW: Gov. Robert Bentley should commute death sentence of Derrick O'Neal Mason, as judge who presided over Mason's case suggests
Published: Wednesday, September 21, 2011, 5:45 AM     Updated: Wednesday, September 21, 2011, 6:44 AM
 By Birmingham News editorial board The Birmingham News
 


Gov. Robert Bentley (The Birmingham News / Michelle Campbell)
Alabama governors just don't respond to newspaper editorials suggesting someone on Death Row should be spared. Maybe Gov. Robert Bentley will respond to the judge who presided over the case of Derrick O'Neal Mason, who is scheduled to die Thursday at the hands of the state.


Retired Madison County Circuit Judge Loyd H. Little Jr. in a Sept. 8 letter to Bentley asked him to commute Mason's death sentence and sentence him to life in prison without the possibility of parole. Little took over the Mason case after he was elected in 1994, the first of many capital cases over which Little presided in 15 years on the bench.


Little asked for Bentley to commute Mason's sentence for several reasons:


-- Mason's attorneys "had absolutely no experience in capital litigation before that trial," Little wrote. "That lack of experience, combined with its being my first experience in capital litigation, more than likely affected how the case was tried."


-- More experienced defense attorneys could have better presented evidence of mitigating factors -- such as Mason's age (19), the lack of a significant criminal record, and drug and alcohol use -- that may have affected the jury's and judge's decision to recommend the death penalty, Little wrote.


-- Most important, Little wrote, is what he came to realize over his 15-year judicial career as he handled other capital punishment cases and even led seminars in Alabama on capital crimes: The aggravating factor of the killing being "especially heinous, atrocious and cruel" when compared to other capital murders should not have been used in Mason's case, Little wrote. Without the aggravating factor to consider, the jury "would have recommended life without parole and I would have followed that recommendation."


Now, the facts of this case may seem "especially heinous, atrocious and cruel." Certainly, they are to the grieving family of Mason's victim, Angela Cagle, whom he confessed to killing during a convenience-store robbery in March 1994. Mason shot her twice in the head after forcing Cagle, who was working at the store, to lie naked on a table in the store's storage room.


It is not our place to tell her loved ones they should somehow believe Cagle's murder wasn't "especially heinous, atrocious and cruel." It was, as we believe every murder is.


But if the people of Alabama are going to allow the state to put murderers to death in our name, we must have a system of capital punishment that is fair and consistent. There are too many disparities in the way the death penalty is applied in Alabama, whether it is based on the race of the victim, the status of the accused, the quality of the defense for the accused, even the location of the crime.


It is worth noting that just this week, the attorney general's office, which has pushed to execute Mason, had a different view of what makes for a suitable sentence for another murderer who shot someone in the head. In July, Pamela B. Terry pleaded guilty to the 2009 murder of her husband of two months, Steven Charles Slaughter. He was writing Terry a check to reimburse her for wedding expenses when she shot him in the back of the head at her Ardmore home, the AG's office said.


"It is appropriate that this defendant has been sentenced to serve 30 years in prison," Attorney General Luther Strange said in a Monday news release. "The callous and purposeful taking of another person's life is a terrible and tragic crime that demands a severe penalty."


How severe will that 30-year sentence really be in a state where those sentenced to life in prison can serve as little as 10 years?


Obviously, no two murders are alike. Terry did plead guilty, and her murder charge was not capital. (Mason was charged with capital murder because of the aggravating circumstance of armed robbery.) But why does one "purposeful taking of another person's life" merit a sentence of 30 years, while another will result in an execution Thursday?


We believe a sentence of life with no possibility of parole is proper punishment for Mason. It is what Little wrote should have happened 15 years ago. It is what Bentley should make happen before Thursday evening.



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