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Off Death Row

Appeals court overturns Yeiter’s conviction for Escambia pastor’s slaying


News Staff Writer

Brett Richard Yeiter, up until just over a week ago one of three individuals on Alabama’s Death Row for Escambia County murder convictions, has regained his status as an un-convicted defendant.
On December 17, the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals ordered that Yeiter, convicted and sentenced to death here in 2019 for the 2014 shotgun murder of his father-in-law, be given a new trial.
A concentrated push by Equal Justice Initiative (EJI), the anti-death sentence organization highlighted in the movie “Just Mercy,” led to the overturn of Yeiter’s conviction.
The court’s decision was based on evidence of past misdeeds by Yeiter that he muttered while confessing that he shot his father-in-law, 69-year-old Paul Phillips, while Phillips sat in the parking lot of Book of Acts Holiness Church, just north of the Florida line, where Phillips was pastor.
“Prosecutors introduced during their case-in-chief a statement that Mr. Yeiter made to police a week after the shooting of his father-in-law,” reads a release issued by EJI in wake of the court’s decision. “The statement contained multiple references to Mr. Yeiter’s prior convictions — including one when he was a teenager — and time he had spent in prison.
“Mr. Yeiter’s defense lawyers (Chuck Johns and Kevin McKinley) repeatedly objected, before and during the trial, to the highly prejudicial statement. Even though the State gave no legal justification for introducing it, the trial court allowed the entire statement to be presented to the jury, without any limitations.”
EJI filed the appeal on Yeiter’s behalf, arguing that his conviction and death sentence were “illegally obtained when prosecutors were allowed to introduce inadmissible evidence relating to prior convictions.”
The Court of Criminal Appeals agreed, providing several reasons for reversal, including the appellate court’s rejection of the state’s argument that the illegal evidence was harmless “because we have no doubt that its admission had ‘almost an irreversible impact’ on the jurors and their decision.”
“Although it is undisputed that Yeiter shot Phillips, the jury had to determine Yeiter’s culpability in shooting Phillips,” the court further ruled. The evidence of prior convictions and incarceration, it said, was ‘inherently prejudicial’.”
The appellate court’s decision was not unanimous. Judge Chris McCool issued a dissenting opinion.
“I disagree with the main opinion’s decision to reverse Bret Richard Yeiter’s capital murder conviction and death sentence based on the trial court’s admission of evidence concerning Yeiter’s prior convictions,” McCool wrote. “I believe that the admission of that evidence was, at most, harmless error.”
State prison officials have not disclosed the location where the “murder suspect” will be held while awaiting the new trial, but the convicted killer’s name and mug shot does not show up on either the Alabama Department of Corrections or Escambia County Detention Center inmate rosters.
Meanwhile, the Alabama Attorney General’s Office has reportedly filed, or is in the process of filing, an appeal of the appeals court ruling.