Court approves deplorable sentencing scheme

Published 11:33 pm Tuesday, October 11, 2016

The justices of the Supreme Court of Alabama may be technically correct that a capital murder sentencing scheme known as judicial override passes constitutional muster.

But that doesn’t mean the practice, under which judges can impose the death penalty on defendants even if juries call for lesser sentences of life in prison, has anything to do with justice or fairness before the law.

As the Montgomery Advertiser’s Kelsey Davis reported, the high court last week issued a ruling unanimously upholding judicial override, making Alabama the last state still permitting the sentencing scheme.

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The decision is another black eye for the state’s criminal justice system, as the override loophole opens wide the door to racial bias and political corruption.

According to the Montgomery-based Equal Justice Initiative, some Alabama judges more frequently use judicial override to impose the death penalty on defendants, despite jurors’ recommendation of a life sentence, when victims of crimes are white than when they are black.

And how judges may mete out death penalty verdicts more often in election years. The shameful campaign strategy helps candidates burnish their tough-on-crime bona fides and contributes to the deplorable fact that Alabama has the highest per capita death sentence and execution rate in the nation.

Similar dirty tricks in Florida led the U.S. Supreme Court to strike down that state’s override scheme as unconstitutional in January, a decision we hoped would apply also to Alabama’s courts.

Apparently not. That makes it all the more crucial Alabama lawmakers step up to end judges’ power to impose the death penalty when a jury has recommended a more lenient sentence.

For more evidence overrides harm the justice system, consider new research from TheYale Law Journal. In a report titled “Innocence and Override,” authors Patrick Mulvaney and Katherine Chamblee document startling evidence the practice increases the likelihood of wrongful conviction.

According to the report, override cases account for less than a quarter of death sentences in Alabama, but make up half of death row exonerations. The jarringly disproportionate statistic underscores the deeply flawed nature of judicial override sentences.

And why all defendants should have a constitutional right to have a jury of their peers – not a prejudiced or politically motivated judge – decide their fate.

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