Alabama is one of three states (Delaware and Florida are the others) that allow judges to override a jury’s sentencing decision in capital cases and issue a death sentence despite the jury’s recommendation to the contrary. On November 18, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear the case of Mario Woodward who was sentenced by an Alabama judge to death despite an 8-4 jury vote at trial against it. According to news accounts, the jury’s decision was influenced by multiple mitigating factors, including the importance of Woodward’s relationship with his children.
Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote in her dissent that elected judges seem to be allowing electoral politics to drive their decisions as to whether or not to give a death sentence in Alabama. She cited an instance of an Alabama judge who six times rejected jury recommendations to spare a defendant’s life and talked about the issue in his campaign for election. Since 2000, judges in Alabama overrode jury recommendations that rejected the death penalty 26 times. There is only one other case, in Delaware, where a jury’s sentence of life was switched to death. The state supreme court later overruled the judge’s decision and converted the sentence to life.
Just as the Supreme Court has decided to allow Alabama’s controversial sentencing practice to continue, the Alabama Attorney General is seeking new ways to speed up executions for those already sentenced. Similar to a successful legislative effort that took place in Florida this year, Attorney General Luther Strange announced in November that he will be pursuing legislation in 2014 l to shorten the appeals process for people on death row —a prospect which would dramatically increase the risk of executing an innocent person.
Alabama has exonerated six people sentenced to death in the last 20 years. Some of these people have spent 15-20 years there before being able to prove their innocence. If the appeals process now being proposed existed then they likely would not be with us today.
Speaking to a reporter from Lagniappe, Mobile’s independent bi-weekly newspaper, Esther Brown, an organizer with NCADP’s state affiliate Project Hope to Abolish the Death Penalty, explained that legal protections for people on death row in Alabama are already limited. Speeding up the appeals process would only exacerbate the problems with Alabama’s death penalty system:
“Alabama is already the only state without some form of post-conviction relief. Every other state pays for representation after a capital conviction. For us, people have to find a pro-bono attorney and the attorneys who are willing to take on such significant appeals for no pay are few and far between. So we run into a situation where people may be executed simply for being too poor to hire adequate defense.”
When our judicial system is riddled with errors, misconduct and disregard for citizen jurors, what we need is a closer examination of why the system is failing our communities. Legislation that would bulldoze away an important part of the capital punishment system—the very checks and balances designed to catch life or death errors—further degrades the public’s confidence in our judicial process.