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Bracewell v. State

Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals

March 8, 2019

Debra Bracewell
v.
State of Alabama

          Appeal from Covington Circuit Court (CC-78-26)

          KELLUM, JUDGE.

         Debra Bracewell appeals her resentencing, pursuant to Miller v. Alabama, 567 U.S. 460 (2012), to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole for her 1981 conviction for murder made capital because it was committed during the course of a robbery. See Bracewell v. State, 447 So.2d 815 (Ala.Crim.App.1983), aff'd, 447 So.2d 827 (Ala. 1984), cert. denied, 469 U.S. 980 (1984).

         For purposes of this opinion, an extensive statement of the facts of the crime is not required. Late in the evening on August 14, 1977, Bracewell, who was 17 years old at the time, and her husband Charles Bracewell, [1] who was at least 10 years her senior, entered a gasoline station/convenience store owned and operated by Rex Carnley. Once inside, Charles brandished a gun and demanded money from Carnley, and Bracewell, at Charles's direction, walked behind the checkout counter and retrieved a pistol Carnley kept in a drawer under the cash register. Bracewell then stood on the rungs of a stool behind the counter and shot Carnley in the back of the head from approximately 18 inches away. Charles took the pistol from Bracewell, and Bracewell left the store. Charles then shot Carnley seven more times and took over $1, 000 in cash from Carnley's person. Bracewell subsequently confessed to the murder, was convicted of murder made capital because it was committed during the course of a robbery, and was sentenced to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole.[2]

         In June 2013, after the United States Supreme Court issued its opinion in Miller, 567 U.S. at 465, holding that a sentence of "mandatory life without parole for those under the age of 18 at the time of their crimes violates the Eighth Amendment's prohibition on 'cruel and unusual punishments, '" Bracewell filed a Rule 32, Ala. R. Crim. P., petition for postconviction relief challenging the constitutionality of her sentence. In June 2016, after the United States Supreme Court issued its opinion in Montgomery v. Louisiana, 577 U.S. ___, 136 S.Ct. 718 (2016), holding that the rule announced in Miller applied retroactively on collateral review, the circuit court granted Bracewell's petition, set aside her sentence, and scheduled a resentencing hearing.

         The trial court conducted a sentencing hearing on August 28, 2017, and August 30, 2017, during which Bracewell presented evidence that she was intellectually disabled; that she had been physically and sexually abused by her father during her childhood and adolescence; and that she had spent her time in prison bettering herself. The State presented evidence regarding the circumstances of the crime; the impact the crime had on Rex Carnley's wife and children; Bracewell's repeated attempts over the years to place the blame for the crime on other people, including Carnley's own wife; and Bracewell's 1990 conviction for first-degree escape. At the conclusion of the hearing, the court resentenced Bracewell to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole. The court, after summarizing pertinent portions of the opinion in Miller, stated:

"What the Supreme Court is saying is that a juvenile cannot be sentenced to life without parole unless there's evidence that they are so terrible there's no hope for them in modern society. Apparently the fact that the juvenile would intentionally take another person's life without any justification is not enough evidence of horribleness for the Supreme Court.
"Where does Debra Bracewell fall on this spectrum? At the time, she was a 17 year old high school dropout suffering from a mild intellectual disability. She was the victim of physical and sexual abuse. And she had taken up with a ne'er-do-well by the name of Charles Bracewell, and it was his idea initially to rob Rex Carnley.
"This would seem to place her outside of those juveniles who deserve the most severe punishments for capital murder. Two factors seem to militate otherwise:
"One, she was already 17 years old and only eight months from reaching 18 years of age. That is the age at which she would be treated as an adult for sentencing purposes. Two, she was the one who stood up on a stool behind Rex Carnley and ended his life.
"I feel deep compassion for you, ma'am. Your home life was horrible and you fell in with a bad man. But those difficulties, as terrible as they were in my mind, do not provide you any special protection from your actions in taking the life of another human being.
"By your own words, you took a gun and shot Rex Carnley. And even a young lady as you were at the time would know that shooting a man in the back of the head would cause his death. You were in no danger and there's no evidence it was an accident.
"Because of your age the law has spared you the death penalty and you have your life. For the most part you've made the best part of your situation and I respect that. But I don't believe the law requires any further mercy on my part for what you did."

(R. 269-71.)

         Subsequently, on September 29, 2017, the trial court issued a written sentencing order. That order consisted of six parts. In the first part, the trial court set out the facts of the crime, including Bracewell's confession to the murder, and in the second part, the trial court set out the procedural history of the case. In the third part, the trial court set out the law under Miller, supra, and the Alabama Supreme Court's subsequent opinion in Ex parte Henderson, 144 So.3d 1262 (Ala. 2013), in which that Court, in accordance with Miller, identified 14 factors a sentencer must consider in determining whether to sentence a juvenile offender convicted of a capital offense to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole:

"(1) the juvenile's chronological age at the time of the offense and the hallmark features of youth, such as immaturity, impetuosity, and failure to appreciate risks and consequences; (2) the juvenile's diminished culpability; (3) the circumstances of the offense; (4) the extent of the juvenile's participation in the crime; (5) the juvenile's family, home, and neighborhood environment; (6) the juvenile's emotional maturity and development; (7) whether familial and/or peer pressure affected the juvenile; (8) the juvenile's past exposure to violence; (9) the juvenile's drug and alcohol history; (10) the juvenile's ability to deal with the police; (11) the juvenile's capacity to assist his or her attorney; (12) the juvenile's mental-health history; (13) the juvenile's potential for rehabilitation; and (14) any other relevant factor related to the juvenile's youth."

144 So.3d at 1284.[3] In the fourth part of its order, the trial court listed each of the Ex parte Henderson factors and recited the evidence presented at the sentencing hearing ...


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