BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (AP) - A group of religious leaders, attorneys and others plans to ask the Alabama Supreme Court for a new trial in the case of a death row inmate accused in the fatal shooting of a convenience store clerk.
A coalition including “Law and Order” star Sam Waterston, National Clergy Council President Rev. Rob Schenck and others said Monday they believe a new trial could lead to the exoneration of William Kuenzel, who was convicted in a 1987 murder and robbery in Talladega County and has maintained his innocence for years.
“This is about an examination of new and compelling facts that will prove that one man did not commit this crime and it’s time to go after the one that did.” Schenck said at a news conference.
Critical evidence discovered in 2010 that could have cleared Kuenzel wasn’t presented in court and was suppressed until long after his sentencing, Kuenzel’s attorney David Kochman said.
Several issues including ineffective counsel and reliance on questionable witness testimony led to his conviction, Kochman and others have said.
Messages left with the Alabama Attorney General’s Office weren’t immediately returned Monday.
Kuenzel’s roommate at the time, Harvey Venn, took a plea deal in the case and testified against Kuenzel, who rejected a plea deal. His attorneys said Venn initially implicated another man in the shooting during interviews with police and said Kuenzel wasn’t at the scene.
Transcripts from grand jury testimony also revealed that the only other witness who testified during the trial that she saw Kuenzel at the shooting scene had told the grand jury she couldn’t give detailed descriptions of the suspects.
Kuenzel’s attorneys said Venn testified to owning a 12-gauge shotgun but actually owned a 16-gauge shotgun similar to the one the clerk was shot with. The attorneys said the gun wasn’t presented as evidence in the trial and Kuenzel returned a 16-gauge shotgun he borrowed from a relative a day before the shooting.
Kuenzel’s execution had been set for March but was blocked by the state supreme court. The Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals was set to consider Kuenzel’s case about three weeks after his scheduled execution date. The state appeals court later rejected Kuenzel’s appeal because it hadn’t been filed in a timely manner.
“It’s a situation in which an innocent man in a murder case can’t get the facts of his case heard in court, isn’t being allowed to show that he’s innocent because of a technicality.” Waterston said. “The world is awash in injustice. None of us can do everything but we can each do something.”
Waterston said he got involved in the case after hearing Kuenzel’s story from fellow “Law and Order” cast member Joanna Merlin, whose husband David Dretzin represented Kuenzel from 1992 until 2006 when he died in a car crash.
Two men facing the death penalty have been released from Alabama prisons this year after reviews of their trials and the evidence used against them. Another man facing a life sentence on a murder charge was released Oct. 2 after a review of fingerprint evidence exonerated him.
Kuenzel’s cousin Linda Stanley said it’s been frustrating to watch other condemned inmates be released, but called the show of support overwhelming.
“We always had hope, we’ll never give up hope,” she said. “This just makes it greater than what it was.”
Kuenzel’s advocates said they plan to ask the state supreme court to consider the case and will file an amicus brief on his behalf.
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