David Chandler: Evidence of innocence moves him off death row, but not out of prison

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This story is the seventh in a series, Unrequited Innocence, that looks at cases where people were sentenced to die and have not been exonerated despite significant evidence of innocence.

Nobody doubts that Charles Ray Jarrell Sr. shot and killed Marlin Shuler, a marijuana dealer, in 1990, after the two had been drinking beer together by a northern Alabama lake.

The issue was whether David Ronald Chandler, a major marijuana grower and distributor, had put Jarrell up to it.

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Unrequited Innocence

A federal grand jury indicted Jarrell, Chandler and 14 others in 1991 with marijuana-related charges, money laundering, firearms violations and with murdering Shuler in furtherance of a criminal enterprise. The 1988 Anti-Drug Abuse Act authorized the death penalty for ordering a murder in furtherance of a criminal operation.

Prosecutors offered Jarrell a deal: If he pleaded guilty to conspiracy and agreed to testify against Chandler, he would be given immunity for killing Shuler.

According to the court record there was plenty of animosity between Jarrell and Shuler. Shuler had been married to Jarrell’s sister, and had been abusive both to her and Jarrell’s mother.

A year before Jarrell shot and killed Shuler he allegedly had pointed a loaded pistol at Shuler’s head and pulled the trigger during an argument, but the weapon failed to fire.

About two months before Shuler was murdered, he had given police information about drug dealing by Jarrell’s sister that had led to her arrest.

Out of 40 witnesses at Chandler’s trial, only Jarrell’s testimony linked him to Shuler’s murder. Jarrell said that Chandler had offered him $500 to kill Shuler, but that he thought Chandler was joking until May, 1990, when Jarrell and Shuler were at Chandler’s home and Chandler told Jarrell that “you better go on and get rid of him” and “I still got that five hundred dollars.”

Jarrell said he and Shuler went to a lake, ostensibly for target practice with pistols, and that he shot Shuler to death. He testified that he didn’t collect the $500 Chandler had allegedly promised.

Prosecutors also had a tape recording of Chandler saying he had to “kill somebody,” but Chandler’s lawyer noted the tape was made three months after Shuler’s death and there is no indication Chandler was talking about Shuler.

The defense also noted that Jarrell’s version of his role in Shuler’s death changed over time.

First, Jarrell claimed he had not committed the crime. Then he said he had done it accidentally. Then he said he had done it out of personal animosity over the abuse suffered by his sister. Finally he said he had done it at Chandler’s command.

The jury accepted Jarrell’s final version of the murder and convicted Chandler on all counts. At the jury’s recommendation, U.S. District Court Judge James Hancock sentenced Chandler to death, making him the first to ever face the death penalty under the Anti-Drug Abuse Act.

After his conviction was upheld on appeal, Chandler sought to overturn the conviction armed with a 1997 recantation by Jarrell of his testimony. Jarrell, who was suffering from throat cancer amidst a 25-year prison sentence, testified that he had murdered Shuler solely out of animosity over Shuler’s abuse of his sister and mother, and that prosecutors had threatened him and his son with the electric chair unless he falsely implicated Chandler in the crime.

At a hearing before Judge Hancock, seven witnesses – three relatives and four men who’d been with Jarrell in jail before the trial – corroborated his testimony, saying he told them he was being subjected to, as the judge put it, “Gestapo-style midnight interrogations and harassment” to force him to testify falsely against Chandler.

Hancock refused to overturn the verdict, speculating that Jarrell’s recantation might have been motivated by his “long relationship and friendship” with Chandler, that his memory of events from 1990 might be suspect because he “was a very heavy drinker” at the time, and that he might be afraid of retaliation from Chandler for his betrayal.

In 1999, a three-judge panel of the Eleventh Circuit voted two-one to vacate Chandler’s death sentence on the ground that he had been denied effective assistance of counsel during his trial’s sentencing phase, when his lawyer failed to call effective character witnesses.

That decision, however, was reversed by a 6-5 vote of the full Eleventh Circuit in 2000, reinstating the death penalty.

While his petition to the U.S. Supreme Court was pending in January 2001, Chandler’s attorneys petitioned then-President Bill Clinton for clemency, contending that “our judicial system, like the human beings who administer it, is fallible. Mr. Chandler’s sentence of death should be commuted primarily because there is now substantial doubt as to his guilt.” Attorney Jack Martin told an Atlanta Journal-Constitution reporter, “We claim the entire murder case was concocted by law enforcement.”

Two hours before Clinton left office in 2001, he commuted Chandler’s sentence to life without parole. As of mid-2019, Chandler remains in prison.