Appeal denied for death row inmate

Published 3:10 pm Friday, September 11, 2015

A man convicted of the 1997 murders of four people, including two Thorsby Elementary students, had his appeal rejected Sept. 8 by a federal appeals court.

Three members of the U.S. 11th Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed a district court judge’s denial of Michael Brandon Samra’s appeal, according to court records.

Samra and co-defendant Mark Duke, who was 16 at the time of the murders, killed Duke’s father, Randy Duke, after a dispute over the family truck.

In trying to cover up the crime, the two killed three other people in a Pelham residence: Randy Duke’s girlfriend, Dedra Hunt, and her daughters, 7-year-old Chelsea and 6-year-old Chelisa.

The girls were both students at Thorsby School.

Duke was convicted in 1999 and given the death sentence.

The death sentence was commuted to life in prison when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2005 that no one could be executed because of the crimes committed while under the age of 18.

Samra, now 37, is on death row at William E. Donaldson Correctional Facility in Jefferson County.

He argued his appellate lawyer was ineffective for failing to investigate evidence of brain dysfunction and for introducing and emphasizing evidence of Samra’s membership in a Satanic gang, which he contends strengthened the state’s aggravation case, according to court records.

Samra also argued that his appellate counsel was ineffective for not raising an argument on appeal that Samra was entitled to pretrial notice of the specific statutory aggravating factor that the state intended to rely upon in pursuing the death penalty against him at his trial in 1998.

The appeals court rejected Samra’s arguments by stating, “Even if we disregard the gang-related evidence and argument, the state presented overwhelming evidence—including Samra’s own confession—of the heinousness of this crime.”

According to court records, Mark Duke became angry with his father and enlisted help from friends to murder him and then make the crime appear as a burglary.

Duke shot and killed his father at their home while Samra shot Hunt, who fled upstairs with her daughters. Duke and Samra then went after the victims and killed them, Duke killing Hunt and one of the girls while Samra killed the other.

“By Samra’s own admission, after he assisted in killing three people, he slit the throat of a 7-year-old girl who was pleading and struggling for her life,” the appeals court wrote. “We find no reasonable probability that, absent evidence or discussion of Samra’s gang involvement, the jury would not have found these murders to be especially heinous, atrocious, or cruel as it found them. As a result, Samra’s claim that his trial counsel was ineffective for pursuing a gang-related strategy and for failing to object to gang-related evidence must be denied.”

Mark Anthony Duke is currently serving his sentence at the St. Clair Correctional Facility.