HB 32 would (1) prohibit a judge from overriding a jury’s recommendation and imposing a death sentence in cases where the jury voted for life without parole in a capital case and (2) require a verdict of death to be based on a unanimous vote of the jury.
End Alabama’s outlier status. Alabama is the only state in America that allows judges to override the vote of a jury and impose the death penalty after a jury recommends life without parole. Judicial override grants a judge the power to arbitrarily sentence a person to death. It’s time for Alabama to end this unfair practice.
Reduce the possibility of executing an innocent person. Jurors are more likely to vote for life without parole if they have some doubt about the guilt of the individual, even if it is not enough doubt to acquit the individual. This fact suggests that capital cases where a jury votes for life without parole are more likely to involve weaker evidence, and thus a higher likelihood of a wrongful conviction. And, the evidence from Alabama supports this. Between 1981 and 2015 judicial override cases accounted for 50 percent of those wrongfully convicted and freed from Alabama’s death row, yet accounted for less than 25 percent of all death sentences. Regardless of your position on the death penalty, we should all agree that the state should do everything in its power to not execute an innocent person.
Death is an irrevocable punishment and should require the highest standard. Alabama is one of only four states that doesn’t require a unanimous jury vote in capital cases. Juries in capital cases are already structurally biased toward a death sentence because individuals opposed to the death penalty are excluded from the jury. At a minimum, Alabama should require that all jurors agree that the state met its burden to impose a death sentence. This common sense bill will help reduce the likelihood of a fatal mistake.
Remove the political pressure placed on elected judges. Sentencing decisions, particularly those involving the death penalty, should be free from politics. But, because Alabama’s trial and appellate court judges are elected, political calculations can lead judges to arbitrarily override a jury’s vote. As the Equal Justice Initiative found, “[t]the proportion of death sentences imposed by override often is elevated in election years.” This legislation will remove the political pressure placed on judges to override a jury and sentence a person to death.
Bring Alabama in line with best practice. In its 2006 review of Alabama’s death penalty system, the American Bar Association recommended that Alabama eliminate judicial override. As it stated, “[j]udge override diminishes jurors’ sense of responsibility for the enormous life and death decision they must make, and results in jurors paying less attention to jury instructions and deliberating for less time. All of this can result in unfairness and inaccuracy.” This legislation is a first step toward bringing Alabama’s death penalty process in line with ABA recommendations.
Let’s not wait for the U.S. Supreme Court to tell Alabama what it must do. As the U.S. Supreme Court’s evolving death penalty case law makes clear, the days are numbered for statutes that permit a judge to sentence a person to death in spite of the jury’s vote for life without parole. The legislature can spare Alabama taxpayers the costs associated with future litigation around a losing fight and the costs associated with resentencing hearings if it takes the common sense step of amending its capital sentencing statute before the U.S. Supreme Court orders our state to make this change. This is not about whether you support or oppose the death penalty - it is about Alabama controlling its death penalty process.
HB 32 will help protect against arbitrary and unreliable death sentences.