Alabama Death Row Prisoner Dies Before His Innocence Is Acknowledged

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After fighting to prove his innocence for nearly 30 years, Donnis Musgrove died last week from lung cancer in the infirmary on death row at Donaldson Correctional Facility in Alabama.

Mr. Musgrove, 67, steadfastly maintained his innocence of the 1986 killing of a man in Jefferson County. His attorneys argue that he was wrongly convicted because the prosecution falsified evidence against him, including witness statements and a shell casing that was used to link him to the killing. In a petition filed recently in federal court, his lawyers asked the judge to rule quickly because of his poor health, but the petition was still pending when he died last week.

Mr. Musgrove was tried by the same Jefferson County prosecutor and judge who handled the case of Anthony Ray Hinton, who was exonerated and released this year after 30 years on death row for crimes he did not commit.

A different Alabama judge told the Associated Press in May that he believes both Mr. Musgrove and his codefendant were wrongly convicted. Before taking the bench, Jefferson County Circuit Court Judge Tommy Nail represented Mr. Musgrove's codefendant, David Walter Rogers, who also died on death row while challenging his case.

Judge Nail pointed to evidence that the prosecution's main witness, the victim's wife, first told police she could not identify the shooters. At a lineup, not only did she fail to select Mr. Rogers or Mr. Musgrove, but she wrongly identified two plainclothes police officers as the killers. Then, minutes after the detective talked to her, she positively identified both defendants in what Judge Nail called a "shaky" identification.

Prosecutors said a shell casing found at the scene of the crime was linked to a pistol Mr. Musgrove used in an assault three months earlier. But Mr. Musgrove's lawyers presented the results of later testing that showed the shell casing found at the murder scene was not linked to the killing at all.

Jurors also heard testimony from a jailhouse informant who claimed Mr. Rogers told him about the killing and implicated Mr. Musgrove, but the informant later recanted and said he had been coerced by police and the late Bob McGregor, an assistant district attorney who also prosecuted Hinton.

Despite this evidence, Alabama prosecutors have refused to re-examine the case, underscoring the need for a Conviction Integrity Unit to investigate wrongful convictions in the state. EJI is calling on prosecutors throughout Alabama to actively facilitate review of cases like Mr. Musgrove's where credible claims of innocence are raised, and is calling on the ABI to end policies that allow it to resist re-examining evidence when new facts emerge that raise a plausible claim of innocence.