Life without parole, again

Published 2:24 am Thursday, August 31, 2017

Bracewell resentenced for 1977 murder of Rex Carnley

Circuit Judge Ben Bowden on Wednesday resentenced Debra Bracewell to life without parole for the 1977 capital murder of Rex Carnley, and weighed in on the Supreme Court ruling that required him to do so.

Bracewell, 57, was twice found guilty of the death of Rex Carnley, the owner of Rex Carnley and Sons on Hwy. 84 East of Opp, who was found shot to death by a customer early on the morning of Mon., Aug. 15, 1977. Her husband, Charles Bracewell, also was twice found guilty by local juries.

Attorneys for Mrs. Bracewell petitioned the court for her relief based on a U.S. Supreme Court decision in Miller v. Alabama which said it is unconstitutional to sentence a juvenile to life in prison. Mrs. Bracewell was 17 at the time of Carnley’s death.

A later Supreme Court ruling in Montgomery v. Louisiana held that Miller could be applied retroactively, leading to reconsideration of a number of cases.

Attorneys with the Montgomery-based Equal Justice Initiative originally petitioned the court to consider Mrs. Bracewell’s sentence in light of Miller. The local court later appointed Chris Sledge and Manish Patel to represent her.

Bowden heard evidence in a resentencing hearing on Monday. On Wednesday, he commented on the Supreme Court ruling before issuing his order.

No area of the law has been impacted by SCOTUS rulings more than capital murder, he said.

He said the law in Miller requires judges, in sentencing, to consider if juveniles can be reformed.

First, he said, children have a lack of maturity and undeveloped sense of responsibility leading to recklessness and heedless risk taking.

Second, he said, children are more vulnerable to negative influences and to outside pressures, including from their parents. Bowden said they have limited control over their own environment and lack the ability to extricate themselves.

And third, he said, a child’s character is not as well formed as an adult’s.

“Before sentencing a juvenile to life without parole, a sentencing judge is required to take into account how children are different,” he said.

“There are appropriate occasions for sentencing juveniles to the harshest possible penalty will be uncommon,” he said. “It is a rare juvenile offender who can receive sentence of life without parole. What the Supreme Court is saying is that a juvenile cannot be sentenced to life without parole unless there is evidence they are so terrible there is 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,” Bowden said.

“Where does Debra Bracewell fall on the 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 named Charles Bracewell. And it was his idea initially to rob Rex Carnley,” Bowden said.

“This would seem to place her outside of those juveniles who deserve the most severe punishment for capital murder.”

But Bowden said there were two factors that indicate otherwise.

“One, she was already 17 years old, and only eight months from reaching 18 years of age,” he said. “That is the age at which she would be treated as an adult with sentencing purposes.

“Two, she was the one that stood up on a stool behind Rex Carnley and ended his life.”

Turning toward Bracewell, Bowden said, “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 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 that time, would know that shooting a man in the back of his head would cause his death.

“You were in no danger,” he said, “and there is 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,” he said.

Before sentencing her to life without parole, Bowden asked Mrs. Bracewell if she had any comments to make.

“I plead the blood of Jesus,” Mrs. Bracewell said.

Witnesses for Mrs. Bracewell testified in her sentencing hearing that she has earned a GED while incarcerated, taken college courses, and that she constantly carries a Bible with her.

But the state, represented by the attorney general’s office, presented evidence that she once forged a letter to then-Gov. Guy Hunt in which she claimed to be Carnley’s widow, and together with Charles Bracewell, responsible for Carnley’s death.

Members of the Carnley family said they were not aware of the letter until this week’s hearings. Two of Rex Carnley’s sons, former Opp Police Chief Nickey Carnley and Kelley Carnley, testified about the effects their father’s murder had on their family.

After Bowden’s ruling on Wednesday, they said even though they were pleased that Mrs. Bracewell would remain in jail, they know that her case will be appealed, and that they will likely be in court again.