How Did a Lifelong Prison Sentence for an Iraq Vet Turn Into an Imminent Death Sentence?

Courtney Lockhart is an Iraqi war veteran now on Alabama's death row, but he shouldn't be.

The jury that heard the prosecutor's request for his execution voted unanimously against it, opting instead for life imprisonment after hearing evidence of Lockhart's brutal tour of duty in Iraq. Lockhart served 16 months in Ramadi, Iraq – the deadliest part of Iraq – where he was attacked with a mortar strike and witnessed far too many friends and comrades die. Once home, he struggled with PTSD, hiding under his bed or in a closet and then living out of his car. His life spiraled into one of isolation and despair, and in 2008 he tragically shot and killed a college student.

The jury voted unanimously to sentence Lockhart to life, based on his military service and PTSD. Yet Lockhart faces execution for the simple reason that his case was tried in the state of Alabama. Alabama is one of only three states that allow judges to override – literally veto – the decisions of juries in capital cases, and the only state to do so in practice.

Serving on a jury in a capital case is hard work. Jurors have to miss work, be separated from their families for extended periods of time, and ultimately decide the fate of another human being. But in Alabama, the product of this expensive and difficult emotional journey is only advisory.

The judge, who faces re-election, can – and in Alabama often does – substitute his or her judgment for the jury's. Delaware and Florida have judicial override on the books, but it is largely a relic of the past. Judges in Alabama, on the other hand, have overridden over 100 life verdicts by juries to impose death. At least 10 people have been executed by Alabama after a judge overrode the jury's verdict of life.

This practice is not just wasteful and dismissive of jurors' time. It is actually unconstitutional. Override of a jury's determination violates the defendant's right under the Sixth Amendment to have a jury, not a judge, make factual findings in a criminal case. It also violates the defendant's right under the Eighth Amendment's prohibition against arbitrary punishments.

The rest of the country has effectively abandoned override – recognizing that is it not an appropriate method of imposing the most serious sanction ever dispensed under the law. Alabama's outlier practice runs afoul of the nation's evolving standards of decency in direct contravention of the Eighth Amendment.

Two years ago the Supreme Court declined to hear a challenge to Alabama's outlier practice in Woodward v. Alabama, over the sharp objections of Justices Sotomayor and Breyer. As Justice Sotomayor explained, she thought the court should hear the case because of "deep concerns about whether [the practice] of override offends the Sixth and Eighth Amendments."

Courtney Lockhart and another Alabama death row inmate, Christie Scott, have now asked the Supreme Court to look at Alabama's unreliable and unfair override practice, in a request that could be decided as early as this week. The court should take this opportunity to bring Alabama in line with the rest of the country, and the Constitution.

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Anonymous

Ah yes, the jury gets to make factual determinations as to (1) what happened and (2) was a crime proven beyond a reasonable doubt. Last time I checked, deciding what sentence is appropriate isn't typically in the hands of a jury.

Since the ACLU hates the death penalty, the author is upset about Alabama's procedures, because a judge can override a jury's recommendation of "life". Fair enough. But if that's the standard, and the jury is to be the ultimate arbiter of life and death, does the ACLU complain when a judge (who has a lot more experience as to what murders are truly horrific enough to warrant the death penalty) overrides a jury's recommendation of death and impose life?

No? Why not?

As far as I can tell, the ACLU has never agreed that anyone warrants execution. A murderer could plan and then tear apart toddlers on video in front of hundreds of witnesses, laughing about and bathing in their blood, and still the ACLU wouldn't agree that death isn't appropriate.

This is why I have no patience for the ACLU. If you're against the death penalty in all cases, always, just admit it. But don't bother writing an article like this one, pretending reasoned consideration of the subject of the death penalty.

As for a judge determining the appropriate sentence in a capital case-- no one in their right mind wants a jury making the final decision in a capital case. To be blunt, jurors don't know how horrible people can be to one another, and therefore can't compare one murder to another to single out the truly monstrous ones for execution. The only people with enough experience dealing with murder cases to be able to make a reasoned judgment is a judge, homicide prosecutor, or long-standing criminal defense attorney. Ditto for burglaries, armed robberies, rape, and so on. If juries decided the sentence, we'd have ten times the number of executions and double the prison sentences in other cases. Having a judge decide the sentence PROTECTS the defendant from inflamed passion on the part of a jury. The fact that this time a judge went the other way-- which is extremely rare, I've heard of it only once-- doesn't mean that somehow the system is flawed. I don't know anything about the case, but I suggest you look it up before you conclude that the judge erred in his decision.

Having a judge-- sworn to be just and even-handed-- be the ultimate arbiter of the sentence in a capital case (after a jury recommendation) is the best system, even if it doesn't come out the way that the ACLU wants in every case.

Anonymous

Perfectly stated!

Anonymous

8th Amendment violation: possibly
6th Amendment violation: definitely

Anonymous

I have a hard time even believing the people who actually WROTE the Constitution were talking about death being "cruel and unusual punishment," else why the world could you get hanged for stealing a horse during their time but "death for committing murder" WAS considered cruel and unusual?
It doesn't make any logical sense that hanging was considered "appropriate" punishment for stealing the main transportation of the 1700's but not for taking the life of a human being.
I think they meant torturing people was cruel and unusual; otherwise it just doesn't make sense. Unless the history books were wrong about that too and people DIDN'T get hanged for stealing a horse.

Anonymous

Capital punishment is premeditated murder. It goes against that persons family. It is immoral. Against the ten commandments. It is pure evil.

A Concerned Veteran

Today Judge Jacob A. Walker III delayed the sentencing of Lisa Graham whom a jury found guilty of capital murder in the murder for hire of her daughter pending a mental evaluation. In this case the jury recommended Walker impose the death penalty.

I'm concerned because Courtney Lockhart is a war veteran with a documented history of PTSD. Several members of his former unit (at least 12 according to media reports) have been arrested for violent crimes (murder or attempted murder) since returning from their duties in Iraq. I am overwhelmingly skeptical of most veterans from the past decade who claim PTSD just for the benefits and ease of capitalizing on public war sympathy. However the numbers and details of Courtney Lockhart's brigade from Fort Carson are telling. Several publications reference this unit and it's experience when voicing concerns that our goverment is not doing enough to help our service members post deployment.

I am writing because Judge Walker overruled the jury's recommendation of life without parole for this veteran during an election year. Now (post re-election) he is doing a 180 and trying to overrule a jury that has recommended death in a proven premeditated murder.(Google or visit Ledger-Enquirer for details)
I am frightened that he is only one of many judges who play politics with life and death.
I hope this decision is not racism. But I can't ignore that convict Lockhart is a black male that killed a white female while convict Graham is a white female who paid her family's black laborer to kill her daughter who is also a white female.

Anonymous

He stalked her, he kidnapped her, forced her to undress, then shot her as she tried to escape. He left her to die bleeding and naked on the side of the highway, then torched the car he killed her for. Then, he went on to assault an old lady in a parking lot, showed no remorse for either crime. Race has nothing to do with it. He deserves to die.

Brian Graves

gumpdy@gmail.com

I went to the same highschool as this guy. At around 16-17 years of age he ran my friend off the road, dragged him out of the car, punched him in the face several times on the ground and told him he was going to kill him if another rock flew off the road and hit his car again. I sat in the passenger seat with my girlfriend as this happened. I didn't try to intervene because he had his "posse" in his Cadillac. He was garbage from birth.

Anonymous

It appears that you (along with the Anonymous response to the concerned Vet post) have personal opinion regarding the Individual in the case. I think the point for discussion is the sentencing practices of judges in Alabama and the appearance of political gamesmanship.

Holly

EXACTLYYYYYYYYYY. This is what I'm saying! Better vetting needs to happen to allow military enlistment. Otherwise it looks like the government's sick & twisted attempt at population control. Good grief.

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