Alabama Judges Override Juries and Order Death Sentences…if There’s an Election Coming Up

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

The worst time to be tried for murder in Alabama is in an election year, when state judges are prone to upgrade punishment to death in capital cases in order to curry favor with voters.


Alabama is one of three states (Delaware and Florida being the others) that grant judges the authority to override jury sentences and impose the death penalty. Since Florida rarely uses the judicial override and Delaware has abolished the death penalty, Alabama is the only state to use the option on a routine basis, according to the Christian Science Monitor.


Statistics show that Alabama judges, who are elected to the bench, have overridden juries in murder cases 111 times since the death penalty’s reinstatement in 1976. Of that 111, judges have upgraded the sentences to death 101 times. In the remaining 10 cases, the judges downgraded the sentence to life in prison. More than 20% of the inmates on death row in Alabama are there as a result of judicial overrides.


“Judicial candidates frequently campaign on their support and enthusiasm for capital punishment” because it is popular among the voting public, according to the Equal Justice Initiative. Consequently, “political pressure injects unfairness and arbitrariness into override decisions.”


The Alabama Criminal Defense Lawyers Association says in the 111 death-penalty upgrade decisions, 80% occurred in the year leading up to a judge’s reelection. For that reason, the organization is lobbying the state legislature to remove the override option.


The U.S. Supreme Court may decide to review one or two Alabama death row cases (Scott v. Alabama or Lockhart v. Alabama [pdf]), which could result in the court taking “a new look at the unusual power Alabama gives to its judges,” Adam Liptak wrote at The New York Times.


Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor has already given a clue to her perspective on the matter in a footnote that she wrote in her dissent in a 2013 case, Mario Dion Woodward v. Alabama. “The only answer that is supported by empirical evidence,” she wrote, “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.” She supported her view by citing a study which shows that judicial overrides are more common during election years.


It has also been shown—based on a study of the Delaware judicial system—that judges, even those who are appointed, tend to apply the death sentence more often than juries do.

-Danny Biederman, Noel Brinkerhoff


To Learn More:

Grandmother’s Punishment for Girl's Running Death Tests Death Penalty in Alabama (by Patrik Jonsson, Christian Science Monitor)

Justices May Review Capital Cases in Which Judges Overrode Juries (by Adam Liptak, New York Times)

The Death Penalty in Alabama: Judge Override (Equal Justice Initiative)

More Evidence that TV Ads in Judicial Elections Lead to Less Sympathy for Defendants back in the Courtroom (by Noel Brinkerhoff, AllGov)

Increased Spending on Judicial Elections Leads to Increase in Guilty Verdicts (by Matt Bewig, AllGov)


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