Aniah’s Law called game changer, but judges often don’t use bail powers they have

Published: Nov. 2, 2022 at 6:54 PM CDT
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MOBILE, Ala. (WALA) - Top leaders on Wednesday urged voters to approve a constitutional amendment they contend would stop the “revolving door” that turns criminals back on the street, but bond records suggest judges already have more power than they use.

The amendment, dubbed Aniah’s Law, would allow judges to deny bail to defendants charged with a broad swath of violent offenses. Capital murder currently is the only charge in which bail can be denied based on the offense, itself.

The law is named for Aniah Blanchard, a young woman who was kidnapped in Auburn and murdered. Her alleged killer was out on bond on a previous offense. It will take effect if voters statewide on Tuesday approve the measure labeled on the ballot as Amendment One.

“We think this will be a great solution to help stop that revolving door of crime,” Mobile County District Attorney Ashley Rich said at a news conference

But judges already have wide latitude in denying bail or setting extremely high bonds. For instance, judge routinely deny bond if a defendant was out on bond for a previous offense, was on probation at the time of the new offense or is wanted by another jurisdiction. Notwithstanding those exceptions, Alabama judges have interpreted the state and federal constitutions as guaranteeing people a right to bail in ono-capital offenses, but those bonds can be set higher than most defendants could afford.

In January, the Alabama Supreme Court raised the maximum recommended bail in murder cases from $150,000 to $1.5 million. Even that is not a hard limit. It is merely a recommendation, and judges can exceed it. When it was at $150,000, it was not uncommon for judges to set bonds higher than that.

But since the Supreme Court changed the bail schedule, not a single murder defendant in Mobile County has had bail set as high as $1.5 million.

Highest murder bond is $1 million

The highest bond during that time was set at a combined $1 million for two murder counts against Patrick Lewis, accused in the February 2021 deaths of an elderly couple in Mobile’s Happy Hill community. Tony and Leila Lewis died after multiple rounds of gunshots pierced the walls of their home, triggering an explosion and fire that destroyed the house.

Lewis also has a pending murder charge stemming from an unrelated fatal shooting that the Shoppes at Bel Air.

In another case, a judge set a $750,000 bail for Damien Washam, accused of using a samurai-style sword to kill his mother at their home in the Eight Mile area.

If those cases did not warrant $1.5 million bail, it is natural to ask how often anyone would be denied bail, altogether.

“That is a question you need to ask the judges, but certainly, the Mobile County District Attorney’s Office is going to be having these hearings,” Rich said. “And we’re going to be fighting to keep these individuals in jail on these violent felony offenses if we can get this vital tool.”

Mobile County’s presiding District Court judge, Spiro Cherigotis, told FOX10 News that he supports Aniah’s Law. But he suggested that judges would not automatically deny bail. Under the law, people charged with non-capital murder, rape, kidnapping or any of nine additional offenses would initially be jailed without bond. But prosecutors would have to request a special hearing in which they would have show “clear and convincing evidence,” a higher burden than a standard bond hearing or even a preliminary hearing to send a case to a grand jury.

“I do think that to get beyond the level of probable cause, I think it’s reasonable to think increased evidence will need to be presented by the state,” Cheriogotis said.

Cheriogotis said Aniah’s Law would, essentially, return bail rules closer to what the framers of the Alabama constitution intended when they allowed judges to deny bail in capital cases. At the time, that applied to a large number of offenses. But over the years, the U.S. Supreme Court as limited capital cases only to murder.

In fact, Cheriogotis said he wishes the Legislature would have applied he no-bail rules to even more kinds of cases – particularly those involving guns that do not qualify under the amendment up for a vote on Tuesday.

No bail requires more in-depth hearings

But Cheriogotis said prosecutors may find it burdensome to prepare for a large number of special hearings. In pre-trial hearings, judges typically allow hearsay evidence. A police investigator summarizing the case usually is sufficient for a judge to send a case to the grand jury.

But Cheriogotis said judges may want to hear directly from eye witnesses if prosecutors ask for bail to be denied.

“It’s likely that on many of these cases, it’ll be a more in-depth hearing,” he said.

Rich said prosecutors will ask for no bail in a large number of cases.

“I think it will be significant, because, you know, we have got to stop these defendants from getting out of jail and hurting other citizens in our community,” she said. “And so, I see that this will be on a significant number of these cases.”

Rich downplayed he potential difficulty of preparing evidence.

“I don’t think it will change very much what we will do,” she said. “It might create more hearings, but we’re willing to have those hearings because we think this is so important.”

The genesis of Aniah’s Law dates back even further than Blanchard’s death. The law’s sponsor, Rep. Chip Brown (R-Mobile), began pushing for bail reform in 2019 after a judge told Mobile Chief of Staff James Barber that he would have to get the law changed if he wanted judges to deny bail in non-capital crimes.

Brown said he is bullish on prospects for its impact.

“I think it will be used quite a bit, actually,” he said. “It’s for those special cases if they would offend (again) if they got out.”

The law potentially could result in hundreds more inmates locked up at Mobile County Metro Jail, alone. But Mobile County Sheriff Sam Cochran said he was not worried about exacerbating overcrowding.

“There’s always room at the inn for violent criminals,” he said.


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