Today the Alabama House of Representatives passed SB 16, which will remove the power of a judge to override a jury’s sentencing verdict in capital cases. SB 16 will now move to the Governor for consideration.
“Alabama is the only state in America that allows judges to override the vote of a jury and impose the death penalty,” said Frank Knaack, executive director of Alabama Appleseed. “Today, Alabama came one step closer to ending this arbitrary and unfair practice.”
Research has shown that 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. 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.
“This bill will help reduce the possibility of executing an innocent person,” said Knaack. “The evidence from Alabama is clear – individuals sentenced to death as a result of a judicial override were much more likely to have been wrongfully convicted in the first place. 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.”
SB 16 will help remove the political pressure placed on elected judges.
“Sentencing decisions, particularly those involving the death penalty, should be free from politics,” continued Knaack. “But, because Alabama’s trial and appellate court judges are elected, political calculations can lead judges to arbitrarily override a jury’s vote. This legislation will remove the political pressure placed on judges to override a jury and sentence a person to death.”
SB 16 will help 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.
“This legislation is a first step toward bringing Alabama’s death penalty process in line with American Bar Association recommendations,” said Knaack. “But, as the American Bar Association pointed out over ten years ago, much work remains before Alabama can consider its death penalty process to be fair and accurate.”
SB 16 will help Alabama, and not the U.S. Supreme Court, determine its death penalty process.
“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,” continued Knaack. “This bill will help spare Alabama taxpayers some of the costs associated with future litigation around a losing fight. This is not about whether you support or oppose the death penalty – it is about Alabama controlling its death penalty process.”
“We commend Senator Brewbaker, Senator Sanders, and Representative England for their leadership in this effort,” concluded Knaack.