Late last week, the Alabama Supreme Court denied an inmate’s writ, which had asked the justices to review his first-degree robbery conviction and life sentence. Chief Justice Roy Moore dissented from the Court’s denial, and he issued an opinion to explain why he believes the case warrants judicial attention. For the second time in six months, Chief Justice Moore has expressed serious concerns about the “difference between justice and overkill.”
Willie Lee Conner was convicted of first-degree robbery and sentenced to life in prison under Alabama’s habitual offender law. The evidence indicated that Conner was stopped by employees of a Lowe’s hardware store who believed he had stolen a roofing nailer. After he was escorted back into the store, Conner said “I have a gun.” One of the employees tackled him and discovered the stolen item. Conner was not in possession of a gun. He later claimed that his statement about the gun was meant to convey that he had a nail gun, which is what he called the roofing nailer he had placed in his pants.
Under Alabama law, someone commits a first-degree robbery if he, in the course of a robbery, is armed with a deadly or dangerous weapon or causes serious physical injury to another person. The law also contains a provision that a person who verbally represents that he is armed with such a weapon provides prima facie evidence that he was so armed. Chief Justice Moore’s opinion most specifically deals with the question of whether someone in Alabama can be convicted of first-degree robbery if they are not actually armed. To this question, Moore believes the answer to be “no.”
More broadly, Moore finds the outcome of the case—a first-degree robbery conviction of an unarmed man resulting in his life imprisonment—to be a “grave injustice.” In his view, the use of force and the presence of danger can justify harsher punishments, but neither of those features were present in Conner’s case. In this way, Moore’s dissent harkens back to a similar position he staked out in September of 2015. At that time, the Alabama Supreme Court declined to review Lee Carroll Brooker’s case. Though Moore concurred with the Court’s decision, he wrote his own opinion to explain that he believed the mandatory life-without-parole sentence imposed on Brooker for a non-violent drug-related crime was “excessive and unjustified.” He “urge[d]” the legislature to revisit its sentencing scheme, which contains “grave flaws.”
The idea that locking up a person like Mr. Brooker—whom authorities found to be growing marijuana plants—for life without any chance of release is unconstitutional finds timely scholarly support. This week, the Case Western Law Review uploaded an article that explores the emerging national consensus against imposing life-without-parole sentences on individuals who have committed non-violent crimes. Though Mr. Conner’s case is one step removed from the non-violent crimes discussed in that article, and an earlier ACLU report, Chief Justice Moore’s dissent shows just how small the gap is under certain circumstances.