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Lawyers say Alabama could execute innocent death row inmate

Lawyers for a man who was scheduled to be executed last month told judges Tuesday that prosecutors withheld grand jury testimony that could prove his innocence.
A witness room faces an execution chamber. (Photo by Caroline Groussain/AFP/Getty)
A witness room faces an execution chamber.

MONTGOMERY, Alabama -- Lawyers for a man who was scheduled to be executed last month told judges Tuesday that prosecutors for 20 years withheld grand jury testimony and police notes that could prove his innocence.

The case of Bill Kuenzel, who was convicted of killing a store clerk in 1987, was argued before the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals, four days after the state freed a different death row inmate when new evidence surfaced.

"Mr. Kuenzel did not get a fair trial. What happened here is horrific," Kuenzel's lawyer David Kochman told the judges.

Kochman said the evidence disclosed in 2010 should cast serious doubts about Kuenzel's guilt. A lawyer for the state said the federal court had already dismissed similar innocence claims by Kuenzel and his legal team missed a deadline to raise the issue by three years.

Kuenzel was convicted of killing store clerk Linda Jean Offord during a robbery at Joe Bob's Crystal Palace in Sylacauga. His conviction was based largely on testimony from his roommate, Harvey Venn. He pleaded guilty to a lesser charge and served about 10 years in prison.

Venn's testimony at trial was backed up by April Harris, who said she saw Venn and Kuenzel at the store earlier that evening. But the grand jury testimony disclosed in 2010 showed Harris told them that she "couldn't see a face" and wasn't certain who was at the store that night.

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Defense lawyers said they've also learned that Venn had a shotgun the same gauge that was used to kill Offord, instead of a different one he initially claimed he had. Venn also initially told police that he had been at the convenience store with another friend, not Kuenzel.

"This was a weak case built on accomplice testimony," Kochman said.

Assistant Attorney General Clay Crenshaw told the court that while Harris had "slight variations" in her testimony, she testified at trial that she believed it was Venn and Kuenzel at the store.

There was other evidence, Crenshaw said, that would corroborate Venn's testimony, including that after the killing, Kuenzel told co-workers that the best way to kill someone was with a shotgun because it was harder to trace the shooting back to that weapon.

And Crenshaw said investigators found a notebook with handwritten notes suggesting Venn and Kuenzel were "trying to get their story straight."

"Those actions reflect a consciousness of guilt," Crenshaw said.

Kuenzel's execution a month ago was stayed when the appellate court agreed to hear his case.

Crenshaw said the defense waited too long to bring up the new evidence. Rules give the defense six months to raise an issue. Kuenzel's legal team, who at the time was in federal litigation on the case, thought the issue was properly raised in time.

Appellate judges several times raised the issue of the missed deadline and asked how they could legally put it aside.

"This is a rare case. .... We are appealing to the court's sense of equity. This court needs to believe this man did not get a fair trial," Kochman said.

The arguments came four days after Anthony Ray Hinton was freed from death row when new ballistics tests contradicted the only evidence connecting him to two slayings.

Hinton, 58, left prison Friday after spending nearly half his life on death row.