The right to a trial by jury is one of the most sacred elements of the American criminal justice system. The basic principle of being judged by a jury of peers is a cornerstone of a nation built on a populist spirit and suspicion of elites. But in Alabama, members of a jury in a capital murder trial are not empowered to set the sentence. Rather, a single judge, and not the jury, makes the ultimate decision about whether the defendant should be executed. More than 100 people have been sentenced to death in Alabama since 1978 despite a jury’s sentencing recommendation of life without parole.
Alabama is the last state in the country to allow these “judicial overrides.” Two bills in the Alabama Legislature’s 2017 regular session – HB 32, sponsored by Rep. Chris England, D-Tuscaloosa, and SB 16, sponsored by Sen. Dick Brewbaker, R-Pike Road – would end judicial overrides and respect the jury’s decision in weighty matters of life or death.
This fact sheet by Arise policy analyst Stephen Stetson examines the history and shortcomings of judicial overrides and explains why it makes sense both morally and financially for Alabama to abolish this unusual practice.
How sure are you that human beings will get it right every single time? A single small mistake in a death penalty case could result in an unjust execution – an error that can never be corrected.
People accused of capital crimes deserve every possible safeguard to ensure the integrity of a conviction. Several bills have been introduced this session to improve Alabama’s death penalty process by lowering the risks of errors and injustice. (Click here for a PDF version of this overview.)
What are the capital punishment reform bills?
SB 237, sponsored by Sen. Dick Brewbaker, R-Montgomery, is a bipartisan effort to establish a statewide Innocence Commission to examine capital convictions. The commission would evaluate whether errors occurred in any of the stages leading up to the conviction and sentencing. The Senate Judiciary Committee has approved the bill, and it awaits a vote by the full Senate.
Sen. Hank Sanders, D-Selma, also has introduced his usual slate of proposed death penalty reforms. SB 117 would end the process known as “judicial override,” in which judges in capital cases can disregard a jury’s recommended sentence of life imprisonment without parole and impose a death sentence. This bill is particularly important in light of a recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling (Hurst v. Florida) that casts new critical light on this practice. Adding extra timeliness to this debate is a Jefferson County circuit judge’s ruling on March 3 that Alabama’s capital sentencing scheme is unconstitutional. (The state is expected to appeal that ruling.)
Sanders also has introduced SB 153, which would place a temporary moratorium on death sentences and executions. Finally, two additional Sanders bills would bring Alabama law into compliance with U.S. Supreme Court rulings that forbid executions of defendants who were under age 18 at the time of the crime (SB 154) and forbid executions of defendants who have mental disabilities (SB 155).
What’s the bottom line?
Several bills offer a path forward on the rocky terrain of capital punishment in Alabama. With nearly 200 people sitting on death row in this state, it’s crucial that we soberly assess current laws and the risks of errors. Whether you’re for or against the death penalty, on this life-or-death issue, justice requires legislative reforms to Alabama’s capital punishment system.
By Stephen Stetson, policy analyst. Posted March 7, 2016.
In Alabama, the death penalty is a curious exception to concerns about government efficiency. When it comes to executing people, a majority of Alabamians appear to trust the government to get it right every time. Lack of transparency in our capital punishment system prompts little public comment. Similarly, on the fiscal side, calls for reducing Alabama's spending rarely include eliminating costly executions.
This fact sheet by ACPP policy analyst Stephen Stetson looks at Alabama's death penalty through the lenses of governmental competence, transparency and fiscal responsibility.
Substantial evidence suggests external factors unfairly influence whether a person convicted of a capital crime in Alabama will receive the death penalty. Race, gender, age and the relative wealth of both the victim and defendant have been shown to be significant factors in the state's decisions to seek and then impose the death penalty.
The proposal for a moratorium on Alabama's death penalty -- long an Arise issue priority -- made a small but significant step forward this session. After a public hearing that continued over several weeks, the House Criminal Justice Subcommittee recommended on April 7 that a House Joint Resolution be offered to begin formal review of the moratorium proposal. Among those speaking in favor of the moratorium was ACPP policy analyst Stephen Stetson, who offered this testimony.
Alabama has a long and tangled history with the death penalty. A Tuskegee University archive preserves the grim evidence of the "lynch law" that long terrorized African Americans. The state's historic enthusiasm for legal executions, which remains strong, bears the stain of racism as well. One measure of the problem is the frequency of national court rulings that address Alabama's capital punishment machinery.
This fact sheet examines the history of capital punishment in Alabama against the backdrop of national legal trends and the growing call for a moratorium.
There is mounting evidence that external factors unfairly influence whether or not an individual convicted of a capital crime in Alabama will receive the death penalty. Race, gender, age and relative wealth of both victim and defendant have all been shown to be significant factors in the decision to impose the death penalty.
This fact sheet outlines proposed death penalty reform legislation for 2007.