Cornelius Singleton (Alabama) Case Summary   Case Chart

Allegation

On November 20, 1992, the State of Alabama, with the acquiescence of the federal government, executed Cornelius Singleton in the electric chair. The state and federal governments failed to ensure Singleton’s right to a fair and impartial trial, free from racial discrimination. The unfair and racially discriminatory trial resulted in Singleton’s execution.

Crime

On November 12, 1977, Sister Ann Hogan was murdered while praying in a cemetery in Mobile, Alabama. Hogan was found buried under stones and logs in a wooded area adjacent to the cemetery. She died from strangulation and asphyxiation. Singleton was arrested, tried, and convicted for her murder.

Salient Issues

Trial

Cornelius Singleton, an African-American man, was convicted by an all-white jury of capital murder based on a coerced confession, dictated by the prosecution. After his arrest, Singleton was interrogated for several hours. During that time, he unknowingly waived his rights to counsel. His girlfriend was then brought to the police station and made to sit on Singleton’s lap while the District Attorney reportedly dictated a confession, which he had Singleton repeat while another officer recorded it as if it was Singleton’s own words. Throughout the interrogation, there was a discussion of a recent incident in which Singleton thought he was buying bed sheets from another resident in his boarding house. A neighbor had reported that her sheets were stolen. The discussion was confusing and disorienting for Singleton, who thought he was being questioned about the sheets. Singleton had an IQ between 55 and 65.

Singleton was taken to the cemetery where the murder took place and was questioned about details, despite his apparent lack of knowledge of the crime. According to Singleton, the victim’s pager and some papers were on the ground and he was told to pick them up but refused. He was then returned to the police station where he was told to sign the confession. He could not read, but he signed the confession after being told that other charges pending against him would be dropped. In fact, no charges were pending. His girlfriend witnessed his signature.

In order to secure a capital conviction, the state needed to convict Singleton not only of murder, but also of an aggravating circumstance, in this case, robbery. The state alleged the victim’s watch was missing and undertook an extensive search of the home of Singleton’s grandfather. The search failed to turn up the watch. A second, brief search subsequently was conducted and the watch was found in plain sight on his grandfather’s mantel. The watch served as evidence that the victim had been killed during the commission of a felony robbery, which provided the necessary special circumstances for a capital conviction.

There was no evidence to link Singleton to the crime or the crime scene and no evidence that he knew the victim or had a motive to kill the victim. Eyewitnesses in the area described a suspicious white man with long blonde hair lurking around the cemetery on the day of the murder. There was some blood on the victim’s blouse and the outline of a hand with fingers pointing downward on the back of the blouse. The state failed to investigate eyewitness accounts and failed to link the forensic evidence to Singleton.

Singleton’s lawyers failed to investigate independently, failed to provide an adequate defense, and failed to challenge the selection of an all-white jury. Singleton was convicted quickly and sentenced to death, despite the lack of any clear evidence linking him to the scene of the crime or to the victim and statements that another man had committed the murder.

Appeals

Appeals were based on the fact that Singleton’s original attorney had failed to use his mental retardation for mitigation purposes at sentencing, according to Matthew McDonald, one of his last lawyers. Singleton’s appeals were denied. His conviction was then overturned when the US Supreme Court found part of the death penalty statute unconstitutional. He was retried in 1981 and again convicted and sentenced to death. He never met with the attorney who filed two of his appeals, and for many years while on death row, he never had an attorney. Before Singleton’s execution, a church bus of people from Mobile went to the governor’s office to plead for clemency. When they arrived they were told that the governor was busy and an aide would talk with them. All the people sat down in the capitol and refused to leave. Around 7:30 p.m., Governor Hunt, who was a minister and also had a retarded daughter, agreed to see a group of them. He did not grant clemency.

Conclusion

Cornelius Singleton was executed in spite of compelling evidence of innocence and numerous allegations of rights violations during the police investigation and the original criminal trial. The State of Alabama failed to protect Singleton’s right to a fair and impartial trial and his right to be free from racial discrimination. Such rights violations are especially egregious in light of Singleton’s mental incapacity. The state and federal appeals courts, including the U.S. Supreme Court, denied relief.

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