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Alabama Death Penalty Orders Raise Eyebrows

WASHINGTON (CN) - Two justices complained Monday that the Supreme Court missed an opportunity to review an Alabama law that lets judges override jury decisions to issue the death penalty.

In the case at hand, a jury convicted Mario Woodward of capital murder related to the fatal shooting of Montgomery, Ala., police officer Keith Houts.

Though the jury voted 8-4 against executing Woodward, the judge relied on an Alabama law to override such "advisory" jury verdicts and impose a death sentence.

"In the last decade, Alabama has been the only state in which judges have imposed the death penalty in the face of contrary jury verdicts," Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote, joined by Justice Stephen Breyer. "Since Alabama adopted its current statute, its judges have imposed death sen­tences on 95 defendants contrary to a jury's verdict. Forty­-three of these defendants remain on death row today. Because I harbor deep concerns about whether this prac­tice offends the Sixth and Eighth Amendments, I would grant Woodward's petition for certiorari so that the court could give this issue the close attention that it deserves."

The opinion came in dissent to the denial of a Supreme Court writ of certiorari for Woodward.

"Of the 32 states that currently authorize capital pun­ishment, 31 require jury participation in the sentencing decision; only Montana leaves the jury with no sentencing role in capital cases," Sotomayor wrote.

Alabama is one of three states that permit the trial judge to override the jury's sentencing decision.

Though the court upheld a similar law in Florida in 1984, as well as Alabama's law in 1995 with the decision Harris v. Alabama, Sotomayor said "the time has come for us to reconsider our decision."

"In the nearly two decades since we decided Harris, the practice of judicial overrides has become increasingly rare," Sotomayor added. "In the 1980's, there were 125 life-to-death overrides: 89 in Florida, 30 in Alabama, and 6 in Indiana. In the 1990's, there were 74: 26 in Florida, 44 in Alabama, and 4 in Indiana. Since 2000, by contrast, there have been only 27 life-to-death overrides, 26 of which were by Alabama judges.

"As these statistics demonstrate, Alabama has become a clear outlier. Among the four states that permitted judi­cial overrides at the time of Harris, Alabama now stands as the only one in which judges continue to override jury verdicts of life without parole. One of the four States, Indiana, no longer permits life-to-death judicial overrides at all. Only one defendant in Delaware has ever been condemned to death by a judicial life-to-death override, and the Delaware Supreme Court overturned his sentence. And no Florida judge has overridden a jury's verdict of a life sentence since 1999. In sum, whereas judges across three states overrode roughly 10 jury verdicts per year in the 1980's and 1990's, a dramatic shift has taken place over the past decade: Judges now override jury verdicts of life in just a single State, and they do so roughly twice a year.

"What could explain Alabama judges' distinctive procliv­ity for imposing death sentences in cases where a jury has already rejected that penalty? There is no evidence that criminal activity is more heinous in Alabama than in other States, or that Alabama juries are particularly lenient in weighing aggravating and mitigating circumstances. The only answer that is supported by empirical evidence is one that, in my view, casts a cloud of illegitimacy over the criminal justice system: Alabama judges, who are elected in partisan proceedings, appear to have succumbed to electoral pressures."

The 17-page opinion cites a report on the practice from Equal Justice Initiative called "The Death Penalty in Alabama: Judge Override."

That report describes one Alabama judge who has overridden jury verdicts to impose the death penalty on six occasions and campaigned on his support of capital punishment.

"Alabama judges, it seems, have 'ben[t] to political pressures when pronounc­ing sentence in highly publicized capital cases,'" Sotomayor added.

The judges also give curious justifications in overriding jury verdicts to impose the death penalty, Sotomayor said.

"In sentencing a defendant with an IQ of 65, for example, one judge concluded that '[t]he sociological literature suggests Gypsies intentionally test low on standard IQ tests,'" the opinion states, citing the report. "Another judge, who was facing reelection at the time he sentenced a 19-year-old defend­ant ... [noted that:] 'If I had not imposed the death sentence, I would have sentenced three black people to death and no white people.'"

Justice Breyer did not join in the remainder of the opinion, which discusses the development of Sixth Amendment jurisprudence.

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