The information on this page provides a brief overview of capital clemency in Alabama and is not intended to serve as the basis for a capital clemency petition or campaign. For additional information and sources, please see the full Alabama Clemency Memo (December 2016) prepared by the ABA Capital Clemency Resource Initiative.

Alabama Capital Clemency Memo

The Power Defined

Section 124 of Article V of the Alabama Constitution provides that “[t]he governor shall have power to grant reprieves and commutations to persons under sentence of death.” The constitutional provision also states that the legislature has the authority to provide and regulate the management of pardons, paroles, fines, and forfeitures. According to a manual published by the Alabama Attorney General’s Office, the governor does not have the power to issue a pardon or grant parole to a death-sentenced individual.

The Decision Maker(s)

The power to grant commutations and reprieves in capital cases lies exclusively with the governor. Alabama law does provide for an independent Board of Pardons and Paroles (“Board”) with members appointed by the governor under Ala. Code § 15-22-36(a) (2005). However, to date, the Board has not had a role in a capital clemency case, and its powers are generally limited to granting pardons and paroles in cases that do not involve treason, impeachment, or a sentence of death.

How Petitions are Brought

Alabama law does not provide a set procedure for filing a petition for clemency. Rather, the governor has discretion to set the method of application and to determine what materials should be included for review in support of the petition. As of the date that this page was last updated, the governor’s office has not established any directives, executive orders, or other statements concerning the way in which capital clemency petitions will be processed. Nevertheless, practitioners should always attempt to contact someone within the governor’s office prior to drafting a capital clemency petition to confirm that there have been no policy changes or amendments to the process.

Hearing Practice

The governor has discretion to grant a hearing on and/or an investigation into a petitioner’s application for clemency. As part of the American Bar Association’s Alabama Death Penalty Assessment Report (“ABA Report”) published in 2006, an interview was conducted in September 2005 with Vernon Barnett, who at the time served as legal counsel to former governor Bob Riley. According to Mr. Barnett, Governor Riley’s practice was to grant a hearing if requested by the petitioner. However, there are no public records for hearings that took place during Governor Riley’s tenure. The ABA Report also indicates that “[t]he governor is not required to attend [the hearing], but Governor Riley [did] attend these hearings and [was] very much involved in all such reviews.”

Alabama law requires a district attorney to be present at all clemency hearings before the governor. At those hearings, the district attorney is also responsible for providing the governor with all of the relevant information in the state’s possession concerning the petitioner.

The hearings do not have a formal structure and are not considered judicial proceedings. As a result, the rules of evidence do not apply, and the governor has discretion over what evidence may be introduced. For example, Governor Riley generally closed the hearings to the public and the victim’s family and only permitted the petitioner to present evidence and/or witnesses.

Responding to a Petition

The statute governing clemency in Alabama does not require the governor to make public any information concerning either a grant or denial of clemency. There is no set timeline for making a clemency decision, except that it must be made by the date of the execution.

Current Clemency Decision Maker

Governor Kay Ivey assumed office on April 10, 2017, after former governor Robert Bentley resigned as part of a plea deal involving multiple campaign and ethics charges over misuse of state funds. Governor Ivey served as Lieutenant Governor under Bentley, and she is the second female governor in Alabama. When Ivey was elected Lieutenant Governor in both 2011 and 2014, she became the first Republican woman elected to office in Alabama. Ivey also served two terms as State Treasurer.

Governor Ivey has been publicly skeptical of the state’s parole process, and in 2018, issued Executive Order No. 716 imposing a temporary moratorium on early parole hearings and requiring the Board of Pardons and Paroles to create a “Corrective Action Plan” to address what her office considered the Board’s irresponsible actions in considering offenders for early parole. In May 2019, Governor Ivey signed into law the “Fair Justice Act,” which decreases the time for death penalty appeals by requiring prisoners to prepare their state habeas and direct appeal applications concurrently.  At the same time, in 2018 Governor Ivey signed into law SB16, which ended the longtime practice of judicial override (the judge imposing the death penalty over a jury’s recommendation for life). 

Governor Ivey has presided over several executions since taking office and has denied clemency in each case. 

Past Capital Clemency Decisions


Judith Ann Neelley

Since 1976, clemency has been granted in an Alabama capital case only once. In 1999, Governor Forest H. (“Fob”) James, Jr. granted clemency to Judith Ann Neelley. A white woman originally from Murfreesboro, Tennessee, Neelley was accused and convicted of the murder of a 13-year-old girl who was kidnapped and raped by Neelley’s then-husband. Testimony further revealed that Neelley injected the child with drain cleaner, shot her and shoved her into Little River Canyon in northeast Alabama. At the time they were arrested, the Neelleys had also murdered at least one other person, a woman named Janice Hancock, who was similarly tortured before being killed. The details of their crimes gained national media attention. After she was convicted, the jury recommended by a 10-2 vote that Neelley be sentenced to life imprisonment without parole (Neelley v. Walker, 67 F. Supp. 3d 1319, 1322 (M.D. Ala. 2014)). However, the trial judge overruled the sentencing recommendation and sentenced Neelley to death.

When Neelley was granted clemency in 1999, Governor James initially did not give a reason as to why he commuted Neelley’s sentence. However, in 2002, Governor James indicated in an interview with the Birmingham Post-Herald that he began investigating the possibility of commutation after he determined that the judge’s decision to override the jury was unjust. Outside commentators have suggested that his decision may have partially been motivated by the more culpable nature of Neelley’s husband, as well as a paternalistic attitude towards female offenders (Norman L. Greene, Sparing Cain: Executive Clemency in Capital Cases, 28 Cap. U. L. Rev. 557, 577 (2000)).

After her clemency grant, Neelley filed a federal law suit in an attempt to secure parole. At the time Governor James commuted Neelley’s sentence, the law in Alabama provided that “[a]ny person whose sentence to death has been commuted by the governor to life imprisonment shall not be eligible for a parole from the Board of Pardons and Paroles until he shall have served at least [fifteen] years of such life sentence, and any parole granted contrary to the provisions of the section shall be void” (Ala. Code § 15-22-27(b) (1975)). However, Alabama law also provided that a person convicted of a capital offense must be sentenced to either “life imprisonment without parole or to death” (Ala. Code § 13A-5-39 (1975)).

In 2003, the Alabama Legislature passed a law that altered section 15-22-27(b) so that “[a]ny person whose sentence to death has been commuted by the governor shall not be eligible for a parole” (Ala. Code § 15-22-27(b)). The amended law was made retroactive back to September 1998. Neelley’s federal lawsuit contended that the 2003 amendment was an ex post facto law passed specifically to bar her from pardon or parole. Additionally, Neelley argued that she was the only one that the law could apply to, and the amendment was passed with the intention of applying specifically to Governor James’ clemency grant. On March 25, 2016, a federal judge ruled that Neelley had surpassed the statute of limitations on her claim that the 2003 amendment was an impermissible ex post facto law, without addressing the merits of the claim. Neelley’s attorney has indicated a plan to appeal the decision.

Denials (Where Newsworthy or Controversial)

Christopher Eugene Brooks (Alabama DOC)

On January 21, 2016, Christopher Brooks was executed after his petition for writ of certiorari was denied by the Supreme Court of the United States. Justices Ginsburg and Sotomayor joined in the Court’s decision not to grant the stay, but authored a separate concurrence questioning the constitutionality of Alabama’s death penalty statute in light of Hurst v. Florida, 136 S. Ct. 616 (2016). As time was running out, Brooks’ attorneys unsuccessfully argued that Alabama’s statutory scheme was unconstitutional under Hurst. Brooks’ only remaining avenue to avoid execution was a grant of clemency by Governor Bentley. A Catholic Bishop from Birmingham wrote to Governor Bentley asking him to commute Mr. Brooks’ sentence. Governor Bentley did not disclose publicly his reason for denying clemency.

Vernon Madison

In February 2019, the U.S. Supreme Court vacated and remanded a decision of the Alabama state courts that would have permitted the execution of Vernon Madison after clemency was denied. Vernon Madison was sentenced to death for killing a police officer in 1985 during a domestic dispute. During his time on death row, Madison suffered a series of strokes. These strokes led him to be diagnosed with vascular dementia, resulting in disorientation, confusion, cognitive impairment, and memory loss. At the Supreme Court, Equal Justice Initiative founder Bryan Stevenson argued that Madison’s medical conditions and mental deterioration rendered him constitutionally ineligible for execution. The Court agreed, holding that someone who is unable to understand why he is being executed for reasons of dementia or cognitive decline comes within the protections of the Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment. The case is back in the Alabama state courts for renewed consideration in light of the Supreme Court’s decision. 

Domineque Ray

On February 7, 2019, by a vote of 5-4, the U.S. Supreme Court permitted Alabama to proceed with the execution of Muslim death-row prisoner, Domineque Ray after Governor Ivey denied clemency. Ray had received a rare stay of execution from a panel of the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals earlier in the day, which found that Alabama’s execution process – which only allowed for the Christian prison chaplain to be present with the condemned during lethal injection – violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. In vacating the 11th circuit decision, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed with the state’s argument that Ray had waited too long to bring the challenge. Justice Kagan, joined by Justices Breyer, Ginsburg, and Sotomayor dissented. Justice Kagan wrote, “The clearest command of the Establishment Clause is that one religious denomination cannot be officially preferred over another. But this State’s policy does just that. Under that policy, a Christian prisoner may have a minister of his own faith accompany him into the execution chamber to say his last rites. But if an inmate practices a different religion—whether Islam, Judaism, or any other—he may not die with a minister of his own faith by his side. That treatment goes against the Establishment Clause’s core principle of denominational neutrality.”

Alabama Resources

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Page last updated on October 12, 2020

Important note

The information on this page provides a brief overview of capital clemency and is NOT intended to serve as the basis for a capital clemency petition or campaign.