RICHMOND, Va. — The incest conviction of a former top adviser to Martin Luther King Jr. should be tossed out because he died while his appeal was pending, his lawyer told the Virginia Supreme Court on Monday.
An attorney for the state countered that convictions are presumed to be valid, and the justices should side with a judge who rejected the Rev. James L. Bevel’s bid for posthumous relief after hearing emotional testimony from the daughter he abused.
“The presumption of innocence that goes with a criminal defendant is gone once that person is convicted,” Senior Assistant Attorney General Virginia Theisen told the justices.
A ruling is likely in early November.
Bevel was the architect of the 1963 Children’s Crusade in Birmingham, Ala. He enlisted black schoolchildren to join in civil rights protests, and television images of them being knocked down by fire hoses and attacked by police dogs helped sway the public against segregation.
When he died in December 2008, he had served a few months of a 15-year sentence. The 72-year-old had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and was appealing his conviction.
His attorney, Bonnie Hoffman, is seeking what’s known as an abatement, which is based on the theory that a conviction is not final until the appeals process is complete.
“An appeal is a fundamental step in the process,” Hoffman said. “When it’s terminated by death, the conviction should be abated.”
Abatement is an accepted concept in federal court and in many states. Virginia law is unclear, although Hoffman said the state Supreme Court has routinely abated the convictions of deceased appellants in the past.
Bevel’s case differs from most, however, because of his daughter’s testimony at a 2009 hearing. Aaralyn Mills, whose abuse as a teenager in the 1990s was the subject of her father’s trial, told Loudoun County Circuit Judge Burke McCahill that the conviction had given her closure.
“I wish I could just abate my memories and abate the whole experience, but the reality is it did happen,” Mills testified.
Mills, one of Bevel’s 16 children, was among a group of daughters who came forward in an effort to protect their youngest sister. According to trial testimony, Bevel considered it the parents’ duty to “sexually orient” their children. The four-day trial divided members of Bevel’s large family, with relatives testifying for both the prosecutor and defense.
The Associated Press does not usually identify victims of sex crimes, but Mills had agreed to make her name public.
McCahill praised Mills for her courage in coming forward and said her rights had to be considered. His ruling denying the abatement was upheld by the Virginia Court of Appeals.
Theisen argued that the concept of abatement is outdated, largely because of the criminal justice system’s growing interest in protecting victims’ rights.
Hoffman, who has said she has an ethical responsibility to her client to pursue the abatement, told the justices that she is sensitive to the plight of victims, but cases have to be decided on their merits.
A Baptist minister, Bevel was a leader in the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, two of the stalwart organizations that led efforts in the 1960s to desegregate the South. Decades later, he also helped organize the Million Man March.