Death Row Treadmill

On the eve of his scheduled execution, differing views of Sedley Alley.

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Ten years ago, when John Pierotti was nearing the end of his 30-year career as a prosecutor in the Shelby County district attorney general's office, I asked him which murder cases he remembered as the worst of the worst. One of the first names he mentioned was Sedley Alley.

Alley was then on Tennessee's death row for the brutal murder and rape of 19-year-old Marine Suzanne Marie Collins near Millington Naval Base in 1985. She was abducted while jogging, strangled, beaten, bitten, stabbed in the head with a screwdriver, and raped with a tree branch by her attacker.

As I write this, Alley is scheduled to die by lethal injection at 1 a.m. Wednesday at the Riverbend prison in Nashville. If carried out, the execution will be the second in Tennessee since 1960.

Pierotti, now in private practice, calls Alley "one of the most vicious people I've ever seen." Asked if he has any doubts about his guilt, he says, "Lord no, none at all." When Robert Hutton, his colleague at the Glankler Brown law firm, was representing Alley, Pierotti warned him to be careful about his own safety. "I told Robert he is capable of anything. Don't give him a ballpoint pen because he might attack you."

Hutton, who has known Alley for 10 years, says he never feared Alley or any of his clients. "I really like Sedley," he says.

Alley confessed to the crime and led police to the tree where the branch was broken and used to impale Collins. At his trial in 1987, his defense was not that he did not commit the crime but that he suffered from multiple personality disorder. In his appeal of his death sentence, Alley argued that his lawyers were ineffective and jurors would have spared his life if they had seen evidence of his brain damage, spina bifida, underdeveloped penis, distorted bladder, aberrant kidneys, and problems he experienced at birth. His conviction has been upheld five times since 1989 by the Court of Criminal Appeals, the Tennessee Supreme Court, and a judge specially appointed to review the evidence after the objectivity of the trial judge was questioned.

Federal public defender Kelley Henry represents Alley. She has been a death penalty attorney for 10 years, including the last six years in Tennessee. She believes Alley's confession was coerced. I asked her if she ever felt like she was being used by Alley or other prisoners on death row.

"I don't," she said. "It is my honor and privilege to do this job."

Henry said if DNA testing were done on Collins' clothing, the stick, and other items, the results would conclusively exculpate or incriminate Alley. Asked what she would do if the test results were incriminating, she said, "I can't even conceive of that. I don't have room for the possibility of that in my head. I am convinced that Mr. Alley is innocent."

DNA testing has helped clear prisoners wrongly convicted by juries, including some who confessed, but it is not a magic bullet when the evidence is a few weeks old, much less 21 years old. In North Carolina this week, a prosecutor used DNA evidence to get an indictment of a Duke lacrosse player charged with rape, while defense attorneys said DNA evidence clears the three indicted lacrosse players and proves that their accuser is lying. At a Tennessee parole board hearing Monday, Shelby County prosecutor Bobby Carter, who prosecuted Alley in 1985, argued that DNA testing in this case would be irrelevant to his guilt or innocence.

Randy Tatel, executive director of the Tennessee Coalition to Abolish State Killing (TCASK), says DNA testing should be performed but admits that it would not close the case or silence TCASK.

"I don't know that that produces enough evidence to exonerate him or not," Tatel said. "We just want to see the testing done."

If DNA tests were to link Alley to the murder, Tatel said "we would still oppose his execution. We are opposed to the death penalty as a public policy tool."

A prayer service for Sedley Alley was scheduled for Tuesday evening at Evergreen Presbyterian Church in Memphis.

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