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Ignoring the Voice of the Jury

Anna Arceneaux,
Senior Staff Attorney, ACLU Capital Punishment Project
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June 14, 2010

Last week, Alabama executed John Forrest Parker. Ten of the 12 members of Parker’s jury thought he should live, but the trial judge disagreed and overrode the jury’s life verdict. Parker’s execution was Alabama’s second in as many years in which the defendant’s jury had recommended life.

The ACLU represents Alabama death row prisoner Montez Spradley, whose jury also overwhelmingly recommended that he receive a life sentence. Spradley’s appeal is pending before the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals

In 32 of the 35 death penalty states, the jury decides whether a defendant should live or die, and in the vast majority of states, a single vote for life spares the defendant. But in Alabama, a judge may override the jury even when it unanimously votes for life. Only three states — Alabama, Florida, and Indiana — allow the trial judge to override a jury’s life sentence and impose death. As a result, judges have bloated Alabama’s death row with prisoners whose juries had decided they should live; nearly a fifth of the state’s death row prisoners would never be there had the judge followed the jury’s verdict. Largely as a result of these judicial overrides, Alabama leads the country in death sentencing per capita.

Of the three states with overrides, Alabama is also the only one with partisan judicial elections. During embattled campaigns, many judges proudly tout their override record as proof that they are tough on crime. Judges who have respected jury life sentences in high profile capital cases are often criticized as being “soft on crime.” It is no surprise, then, that studies have shown that the frequency of overrides is tied to election cycles.

Former Alabama Supreme Court Justice Douglas Johnstone has said that Alabama’s practice of judicial overrides “reduces to a sham the role of the jury in sentencing and allows baseless, disparate sentencing of defendants in capital cases.” It is time for Alabama to end its practice of judicial override and honor the voices of jurors.