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Last updated 8:59AM ET
March 1, 2021
Crime Victims Side With AG in Dispute
(APR - Alabama Public Radio ) - With a murder victim's family by his side, Attorney General Troy King accused district attorneys across the state Wednesday of turning their backs on crime victims when they sided with a Shelby County prosecutor who wants a death sentence reduced in a double homicide.

"No more coddling criminals. No more standing against victims," King said at a news conference in his Statehouse office.

Standing with King were family members of slain pawn shop owner John Burleson.

"Never did I think, ever, that a district attorney, the guy that represented us, would turn his back on us turn his back on the victims and the people of Shelby County and the people of Alabama and side with a murderer," said Burleson's son, Kasey Burleson, of Birmingham.

King's news conference came two days after the Alabama District Attorneys Association held a news conference in view of King's office to defend Shelby County District Attorney Robby Owens, a Republican like King. The association called on King to apologize for "his needless attack" on one of their own.

"I will not apologize to anybody for doing the right thing," King said.

Afterward King's news conference Wednesday, Owens said King is mad at him for endorsing his Democratic opponent, Mobile County District Attorney John Tyson Jr., in last year's election because Tyson had more experience.

"It's made him crazy and he's saying crazy stuff," Owens said in a phone interview.

The rare public dispute between prosecutors who are supposed to work together stems from the 1996 robbery and murder of John Burleson and an assistant at Burleson's pawn shop in Shelby County. Two males ages 16 and 18 at the time were convicted of capital murder and sentenced to death.

The younger defendant, Marcus Presley, fired the fatal shots but got his sentence switched to life in prison without parole after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled defendants under 18 at the time of their killings couldn't be executed. Because the triggerman avoided the death penalty, the district attorney supported changing the sentence for the older accomplice, LaSamuel Gamble, and a Republican judge agreed.

To thwart the district attorney, King used his power as attorney general to take the case from Owens on Sept. 12 and put out a news release accusing Owens of shirking his duties and turning against crime victims.

One of Gamble's trial attorneys, Harry Lyon, said politics is involved in the case, but King has the legal power to take over the case and to seek to keep the death sentence.

"Politically, he's 100 percent on base. Alabama voters approve of the death penalty," Lyon said in a phone interview.

"I don't politicize victims' rights," King said Wednesday.

He said he met Tina Burleson at a crime victims' vigil in Birmingham before last year's election. She expressed concern about the impact the Supreme Court's decision would have on her husband's case and sought the attorney general's help, King said.

King said Gamble deserved the death penalty because he planned the robbery as part of a three-month crime spree and he tried to shoot Burleson, but missed. King said Owens "sounded the retreat of common sense and justice" when he advocated changing the sentence.

Owens said Gamble's case would have become the rallying point for anti-death penalty advocates if he had not advocated equal sentences.

"There's only two years' difference between their ages," he said.

In addition to Burleson's son, King was joined at the news conference by Burleson's widow, Tina; her daughter, Kelly Burleson Rushin, and her daughter-in-law, Allison Burleson.

Owens said he didn't turn his back on the family because after the killings he helped track and arrest the defendants. "This is something Troy King has never done in his life," he said.

King, who arranged the news conference, said he was saddened that the Burleson family had to "enter this media spectacle created by the district attorneys in this state."

Owens disagreed with King having a news conference with the family. "It's shameful," he said.

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