Anna Arceneaux,
Senior Staff Attorney, ACLU Capital Punishment Project
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July 12, 2011

In Alabama, as we’ve discussed here before, elected judges have the authority to override the jury’s sentencing decision in death penalty cases – in other words, a judge can sentence a person to die even if a jury of his or her peers decides death is not the appropriate punishment.

A new report by the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) shows that 98 defendants in Alabama have been sentenced to death after their juries recommended a life sentence, often unanimously. Though Alabama judges also have the authority to override a jury’s death sentence to life, that rarely happens. Of the override cases documented by EJI, 92 percent were of a judge imposing death after a jury had imposed life. When a judge has the unchecked discretion to reverse the carefully considered decision of the jury to reject a death sentence, it disregards the purpose served by having a jury in the first place.

Of the 34 death penalty states in the U.S., only three states allow judge override at all: Alabama, Delaware, and Florida. But Alabama is the only state where the practice continues without any meaningful oversight. No one has been sentenced to death by override in Florida since 1999. And not one person on Delaware’s death row was sentenced to death after the jury voted for life. Of these three states, Alabama is also the only one with partisan judicial elections, and overrides often occur with increasing frequency during election cycles.

EJI’s report illustrates the unreliable, biased, and arbitrary nature of override decisions, which depend on the county in which the defendant is tried, the judge who happens to preside over the case, and whether that judge is facing re-election. Those sentenced to death by elected judges after their juries voted for life include:

  • ACLU client Montez Spradley, an African-American man convicted of the death of a white woman in 2008. No physical evidence or eyewitness testimony connected Mr. Spradley to the murder, and Mr. Spradley has always maintained his innocence. He was sentenced to death by the judge after 10 jurors voted for a life sentence. His case is still pending in the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals.
  • Courtney Lockhart, an African-American Iraq War veteran with a documented history of post-traumatic stress disorder, convicted of the murder of a white university student. A judge sentenced him to death early this year, even though his jury had unanimously recommended a life sentence.
  • Walter McMillian, an African-American man convicted for the death of a white woman, though multiple witnesses testified that he was at church at the time of the crime. The case against him was eventually dismissed, after he served six years on death row for a crime he did not commit.

See a pattern here? One of the most disturbing findings in EJI’s report is that race appears to play a significant role in the override system. Three-fourths of Alabama life-to-death override cases, like those of Mr. Spradley, Mr. Lockhart, and Mr. McMillian, occurred when the victim was white, even though the majority of homicide victims in Alabama are African-American.

The practice of override is a major reason that Alabama remains the country’s leader in death sentencing per capita and executions per capita. Over 20 percent of Alabama’s death row prisoners were sent to death row even though their juries wanted them to live. When jurors who support the death penalty have listened closely to the evidence and put time and careful thought into determining that a person should not be sentenced to death, we should honor their verdict. Alabama should join the rest of the country and give meaningful voice to its juries.

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