It’s been quite a while since lawmakers in Montgomery have gotten ahead of the legal or political curve. Instead of reading the writing on the courthouse wall, Alabama’s political leaders have long had a history of being dragged kicking and screaming into contemporary times.
From racial segregation to the continuing fight against marriages for same-sex couples, legislators have ignored practicality and true fiscal responsibility (avoiding costs of lost lawsuits) in favor of political expediency. It doesn’t have to be like this, and there’s a simple place State House politicos can start: death row.
In an 8-to-1 opinion in January, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down Florida’s death penalty scheme as unconstitutional — not because of general anti-death penalty opposition, but for a very particular reason. Until the high court’s ruling earlier this year, when it came to the death penalty in Florida, judges had all the power, juries be damned. Even in cases where a jury had unanimously voted to sentence a defendant to life in prison instead of death, judges in Florida had the right to say, “out, damned jury!” and impose their own will.
Now, after the Supreme Court issued its disdainful opinion of the Florida law, which said that “the Sixth Amendment requires a jury, not a judge, to find each fact necessary to impose a sentence of death” and that “a jury’s mere recommendation is not enough,” only one state in the union is left with this seemingly dictatorial capital sentencing scheme — Alabama — and Attorney General Luther Strange is vowing to keep it.
Alabama’s so-called “judicial override” in death penalty cases is not a new evil. For years, capital defendants in the Yellowhammer State have had to deal with the sometimes capricious and many times arbitrary nature of jury overrides. Here in Alabama, judges have the ability to override juries both ways: from a life sentence to death, or from a death sentence to life in prison.
Despite this, overrides are virtually a one-way street in the Heart of Dixie. Of the more than 100 capital murder defendants whose jury-imposed sentences were changed by a judge, only 8 percent were from death to life. In the remaining 92 percent of cases, a judge ignored the life in prison vote of by the jury, instead imposing the death penalty. These cases aren’t outliers, either. Over 20 percent of current death row inmates in Alabama were put there in spite of a jury’s recommendation of a life sentence.
Jury overrides in Alabama also have serious racial implications. According to statistics from the Montgomery-based nonprofit Equal Justice Initiative, the most reliable factor in determining whether or not a life-in-prison sentence will be converted to a death sentence by a judge is the victim’s race. When a murder victim is white, the defendant is many times more likely to have a judge sentence them to death over a jury’s objection.
While these statistics themselves are troubling, the words and actions of the offending judges make the case against judicial override even worse.
The late Mobile County Judge Ferrill McRae, appointed to the bench by Gov. George Wallace in 1965, imposed more overrides than any judge in the state’s history. Five of six overrides McRae issued were in cases with African-American defendants. One of those defendants, who was mentally handicapped, could not read the confession he had signed, but that didn’t stop McRae, who frequently even cited these types of sentences in “tough on crime” campaign commercials when he was up for re-election.
The practice has been as prevalent — and as perverse — on the Eastern Shore. Baldwin County Judge Charles Partin overrode a life verdict by a jury in the case of John Neal, a man who had consistently scored around 65 on IQ tests, suggesting mild mental retardation. Of the man’s IQ, the judge wrote “[t]he sociological literature suggests Gypsies intentionally test low on standard IQ tests.”
Ironically, when Florida’s statute went before the U.S. Supreme Court for review, Alabama’s Attorney General filed an amicus brief arguing it should be upheld, hoping it would prevent the fall of Florida and Alabama’s nearly identical override systems. Now, though, after Florida’s scheme has been struck down, Attorney General Strange is taking a new stance: the two jury override plans are completely different. That argument doesn’t seem to be working.
In March, Jefferson County Judge Tracie Todd ruled Alabama’s override statute is unconstitutional under the January Supreme Court decision. Strange has vowed to appeal the decision, but as of yet there has been no movement from a higher court. Until then, Alabama’s death penalty override plan is on the books, no matter how precariously, but there’s a simple solution: the Alabama Legislature should get ahead of the curve.
For years, a bill abolishing judicial overrides has sat, lifeless, in the Senate Judiciary Committee. The legislation, sponsored annually by Sen. Hank Sanders (D-Selma), has never gained the light of day. It’s time that changed. It’s time for the Alabama Legislature to make the smart move, without a court ordering it to do so. End jury overrides in the Yellowhammer State, Goat Hill. It’s the easiest life-or-death decision you’ll ever make. It’s simply the right thing to do.