Sep. 25-A judge who has been criticized for being too lenient in allowing defendants to post bond, including the unusual release this year of a capital murder defendant, on Friday will hear arguments on whether another capital murder defendant should be able to get out of jail.
Aaron Carter Howard, 41, of Toney, has been held in the Morgan County Jail without bond for more than two years as he awaits trial in connection with the July 24, 2020, shooting death of Anthony Larry Sheppard, 41, at Sheppard's Hartselle home.
Howard's attorney, Carl Cole, this month filed a motion arguing that despite his client being charged with a capital offense, Circuit Judge Jennifer Howell should allow him to post bond.
District Attorney Scott Anderson disagrees.
"I have yet to see a capital murder case where bond is appropriate," Anderson said last week. "I can't fathom any circumstance where bond would be appropriate in this one."
According to Hartselle police, Jaclyn Elaine Skuce, 40, set up a fake Facebook account and used it to hire Logan McKinley Delp to kill Sheppard, the father of her child, for $30,000. Police say Delp was accompanied by Howard, Angela Stolz and Lajuhn Keith Smart Jr. when he went to Sheppard's Dawson Road home and shot him multiple times.
Smart was questioned by police while in the Madison County Jail on an unrelated charge on Aug. 31, 2020, and gave his account of what happened.
"Smart explained that on or about July 24, he, Aaron Carter Howard, Logan Delp and Angela Stolz went to Hartselle as a group to commit the murder of Sheppard. Smart said Delp drove to the address in question and walked to the door and shot Sheppard. Smart said he got into the driver's seat and drove away to Huntsville.
"He said Stolz remained in the back seat of the vehicle and Aaron Howard drove separately while acting as a look-out," according to an application for a search warrant signed by Hartselle police Lt. Alan McDearmond.
All five defendants alleged to have been involved in the shooting are charged with capital murder and all are being held without bond. Skuce and Delp, 38, are from Madison. Smart, 26, and Stoltz, 35, are from Huntsville.
Capital murder defendants are almost always held without bond, but Howard's attorney said his client should be an exception.
In the motion to set bond, Cole said his client was being held without bond solely because he had been charged with capital murder.
Cole wrote "that the allegations made against this defendant are that he served as a 'lookout.' It is undisputed that he did not pull the trigger. In fact, it is undisputed that he was not at the scene of the crime."
Cole said that none of the other defendants implicated Howard in the crime during preliminary hearings, and that "the word 'lookout' was contrived by the state ... ."
Cole said Howard's trial is unlikely to be held before 2024 and may not go forward until 2025, and that he has family in the area, "a place to live and a job opportunity upon his release."
"He fully looks forward to and anticipates the opportunity to adjudicate to his innocence of the allegations made against him by the state and has no desire to avoid a trial of this matter," Cole wrote. "He simply does not want to stay in jail for potentially five years waiting for the case to come to trial given the facts of this matter. ... (He is) a non-shooter, linked to the alleged crime by the flimsiest of allegations... ."
Cole argued that Howard's release on bond could be conditioned on electronic monitoring, supervision by the Morgan County Community Corrections Program and random drug screens.
Anderson last week said the prosecution did not arbitrarily charge Howard with a capital offense, and that the charge should preclude his release on bond.
"We didn't just dream the charge up," he said. "There's been a grand jury that has said there's probable cause to believe he was involved."
Howell has released a capital murder defendant on bond before.
In January she set bond at $150,000 for 20-year-old Tennessee resident Mark Anthony Stephens Jr., charged with capital murder for shooting a Huntsville business owner during a robbery on Sandlin Road in Decatur.
The DA's office objected, filing Stephens' written statement for Decatur police in which he admitted "luring the guy to the apartments, so I could rob him. ... I then pulled out the gun and told the guy to give me the money."
He said in the statement that he was ostensibly selling the victim a cellphone, but the victim grabbed at Stephens' gun during the robbery and "it accidentally went off." Stephens was released from jail, but Howell later revoked bond when he was charged with driving under the influence of drugs in Tennessee.
The DA's office last month gave notice that it will seek the death penalty for Stephens.
Bond in capital cases
Cole in his motion to set bond for Howard argued that neither the state Constitution nor the Alabama Rules of Criminal Procedure prohibit a capital murder defendant from being released on bail, a matter which he said is within the court's discretion.
The Constitution provides "that all persons shall, before conviction, be bailable by sufficient sureties, except for capital offenses, when the proof is evident or the presumption great; and that excessive bail shall not in any case be required."
The Rules of Criminal Procedure provide recommended ranges for pretrial bond. For capital felonies the range is $50,000 to "no bail allowed," and for non-capital murders the range is $15,000 to $1.5 million.
Cole cited a 2014 state Supreme Court decision for the proposition that bail can be granted for a capital offense "in appropriate cases and under certain circumstances."
That decision, which involved a Limestone County capital murder charge against Joel Patrick Moyers, reversed a Court of Criminal Appeals ruling that required the Circuit Court to set bail after the prosecution gave notice that it did not intend to seek the death penalty.
The Supreme Court ruled that the Circuit Court was not required to set bail in a capital case, whether or not the death penalty was sought, and that the presumption in such cases was that no bail should be allowed. However, the Supreme Court said the trial judge can only deny bail in a capital case if there is clear evidence that the offense has been committed, that the accused is guilty and that he would probably be sentenced to either death or life in prison without parole.
Cole also argued that Howard "has no criminal history, which would warrant his current detention status, nor does the defendant pose a threat to the community."
Howard has been found guilty of other felonies in Alabama, and at least one in Michigan.
In 2013, a Madison County grand jury indicted him for possessing a revolver despite previously having been convicted in Michigan for assault with a deadly weapon. He pleaded guilty and was sentenced to two years of probation.
In 2017, Howard pleaded guilty in Madison County to first-degree receiving stolen property and was sentenced to two years of probation, which became a prison sentence when the court revoked his probation.
In 2019, Howard pleaded guilty to possession of a controlled substance.
Other bond decisions
The clash between the DA and Howell over her release of the capital murder defendant in January was not the only time this year the two have been at odds over her decisions on setting bond.
Raymond Matthew McKinney, 35, was arrested Dec. 5 after being indicted by a Morgan County grand jury for sexual contact with a child under the age of 12 and for sexual contact by forcible compulsion of the same victim. Howell released McKinney from jail on his own recognizance on May 20.
On Aug. 4, while out on bail, McKinney was arrested in Franklin County and charged with first-degree rape and incest involving a 16-year-old female. Howell revoked his bond the next day.
Anderson was critical of Howell for releasing McKinney, especially without first notifying his office, but Howell pointed out that the DA's office knew a motion to reduce bond was pending and failed to respond to it.
In March, Anderson complained that his office and the Morgan County Sheriff's Office had to extradite Christopher Mark Sherwood, charged with first-degree theft, from other states three times, yet on three occasions Howell had released the defendant from jail on his own recognizance. In that case as with McKinney, Anderson said, the DA's office received no notice before Howell released the defendant.
Howard's lawyer on Friday said it's easy to criticize judges on their bond decisions, but not always fair.
"I expect any DA is going to object and either not want a bond, or want the highest bond possible and any defense attorney is going to go the other direction because that's the job. We are advocates," Cole said. "But a judge doesn't have the luxury of being an advocate. A judge has got to referee the two opposing advocates and a lot of times that isn't easy."
Cole said he cringes when judges come under public attack for decisions on the pretrial release of defendants from jail.
"Bonds, like any legal decisions, should be free from politics and based solely on the law," he said. "It's not supposed to be the most popular decision. It's supposed to be the most proper decision. Sometimes - a lot of times actually - the job is to do the unpopular thing.
"If we ever get to a point where judges can't get past the noise and the politics, we are essentially letting the hecklers in the stands umpire the ball game."
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