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October, 2019



A Tale of Two Cases and One Horribly Broken System

There are not many things that inspire me to wake up at 5:00 a.m. My grandmother used to say that the good Lord didn’t intend us to be up before there was light to see by, and I took her words to heart. Still, I had to make the drive from Nashville to Memphis on Monday to get to the Shelby County Courthouse by 9:00 a.m. when arguments would be made in the Sedley Alley case.

Mr. Alley was convicted for the 1985 rape and murder of Marine Lance Corporal Suzanne Marie Collins in Shelby County. He confessed to the crime after a police interrogation that lasted for hours but later admitted that he had no memory of the night of the crime because of his heavy drinking. Dr. Richard Leo, an expert in false confessions, has analyzed the case and determined that Mr. Alley’s confession was likely false as key details in his statement about how the crime was committed do not match the forensic evidence.

Other physical evidence from the crime scene and eyewitness accounts also raise questions about Mr. Alley’s guilt. For example, the tire tracks found at the crime scene were not from Mr. Alley’s vehicle. Shoe prints at the scene did not match Mr. Alley’s shoes. A key witness’s description of a man with a station wagon where Ms. Collins was abducted described the man as 5’6-8” tall with short brown hair and a dark complexion. Mr. Alley was 6’4” tall, had red, medium-length hair, and a light complexion.

But even with all of this questionable evidence, the state had the confession and forged ahead. Numerous items of evidence from the crime scene that were in the State’s custody were never tested for DNA, including men’s red underwear found near Ms. Collins’s body that police believed were worn by her attacker.

In 2006, just prior to the Mr. Alley’s execution, even the Tennessee Board of Probation and Parole recommended the State do the testing. But then-Governor Bredesen did not take action. Instead, he punted the decision to the state courts, which refused the testing.

On June 28, 2006, Sedley Alley was executed by the State of Tennessee. Five years later, the Tennessee Supreme Court admitted the ruling in Mr. Alley’s case was wrong and overruled it in State v. Powers.

In another plot twist only a few months ago, the Innocence Project received a letter from law enforcement sources in St. Louis informing them that a man named Thomas Bruce is now under indictment there for homicide and rape. The letter indicated that they believe this man might be a serial offender. After law enforcement looked into Mr. Bruce’s background and the places that he previously lived, they discovered that he was taking courses at the same Avionics Training School in Millington as Ms. Collins in the months prior to her murder.

Once Sedley Alley’s daughter, April Alley, who is also the executor of his estate, became aware of this new information, she petitioned the Criminal Court for Shelby County for the post-conviction DNA testing. She has also requested that Governor Lee order the DNA testing pursuant to his power to grant posthumous pardons.

I did make it to the hearing just in time for the proceedings. I heard attorneys Barry Scheck and Stephen Ross Johnson make a powerful case for the testing. I heard three death row exonerees, also present for the hearing, tell the media why DNA testing is so critical to ensure that innocent people are not executed and to get to the truth in this case. I also heard the Shelby County Assistant DA argue that the law only allows the person convicted of the crime to request testing, not his or her estate, so the testing should not be allowed.

This is the State’s argument? So the Tennessee court okays the execution of Sedley Alley without allowing him DNA testing, reverses the decision five years after his execution, and now the State argues that for testing to occur now, Mr. Alley has to request it. The State does know that it executed him, right?

This ridiculous argument led the Johnson City Press Editorial staff to write, “Of all the preposterous legal situations we’ve read about in recent years, an effort this week to halt a DNA inquiry in a Tennessee execution review might just take the cake.” Amen to that.

Obviously, we don’t know what the testing will show…precisely why we need it. But regardless of the results, the testing will get us closer to the truth. The truth is all that April Alley wants. And we all should want the truth too, not just because it is what our justice system is supposed to be about but also because it might identify another person as the perpetrator of this crime, a person who has been out there since 1985 possibly committing other heinous crimes.

This push for DNA testing comes at the same time that the Tennessee Attorney General has requested that nine more execution dates be set and made an unprecedented move to appeal a decision made by Davidson County District Attorney General Glenn Funk to reduce Abu Ali Abudur’Rahman’s death sentence to life. General Funk agreed to this new sentence because of the overt racism and prosecutorial misconduct that infected Mr. Abdur’Rahman’s trial. In appealing the decision made by an elected DA and approved by a judge, the State has demonstrated yet again, as it has in Mr. Alley’s case, that what it is actually defending is not justice but maintaining a conviction, not truth but a broken process.

Mr. Abdur’Rahman’s attorney Brad MacLean shared the same sentiment at the conclusion of the press conference about Abu Ali’s case last Friday:

The AG claims he is upholding the ‘rule of law’. Our question is what rule of law is he talking about? Is he talking about a rule that says it’s OK for a racist prosecutor to use race in jury selection? Is he talking about a rule that says it’s OK for a prosecutor to be dishonest? Is he talking about a rule that says our criminal justice system cannot correct a grave error? Is he talking about a rule that says it’s OK to inflict cruel and unusual punishment? Is he talking about a rule that says a district attorney general is not to gain justice, but rather he is to pursue a victory at any cost? Those are not our rules of law.

As citizens, we must impress upon Governor Lee that Tennessee’s death penalty cannot be trusted. These two cases bear witness to that fact. In the interest of truth and justice, all executions must be stopped in Tennessee so that our state can take a long, hard look at the current process, examining it from top to bottom. A comprehensive, independent analysis of this system must be conducted before any other person is put to death in Tennessee. Justice demands nothing less.