Death to judicial override

January 11, 2017

By Joey Kennedy
Alabama Political Reporter

During my years as an editorial writer for The Birmingham News, I spent much of that time opposed to the death penalty. The death penalty should be abolished; clearly, innocent people have been killed by the State of Alabama. A number have been released from Death Row after being exonerated at some point, barely dodging the electric chair or, now, the needle.

Eventually, my colleagues and I wrote a week-long series telling readers why The News was changing its position on the death penalty. We explained our reason for transforming from a newspaper that supported the death penalty into one that now strongly opposed it.

That series was a finalist (top 3) for a Pulitzer Prize in 2006.

There are many reasons I oppose the death penalty, including the belief that the State should never take anything from a person it can’t give back; the death penalty is cruel, as demonstrated most recently by the botched execution of Alabama inmate Ronald Bert Smith last month; and, pragmatically, it costs the State more to execute an inmate (lengthy, necessary appeals are among the highest costs) than it does to keep an inmate in prison for life.

No, I don’t see Alabama dropping the death penalty anytime soon. But I must say I was encouraged to read Alabama Political Reporter editor in chief Bill Britt’s story Monday, that a bill has been proposed for the upcoming legislative session that will end the terrible practice of judicial override in capital murder cases in Alabama.

That is at least one tiny step in the right direction toward keeping at least some politics out of death penalty decisions.

As it stands now, a jury can recommend a life sentence in a capital murder case, but a judge – an elected judge, at that – can overrule that decision. True, a judge can also overrule a decision by a jury to sentence somebody to death. But that decision, rarely, if ever, occurs.

Elected judges certainly don’t want to be seen as soft on crime. There are some judges who never overrule a jury’s recommendation. But many have no qualms about being the hanging judge.

Indeed, according to the Equal Justice Initiative, Britt reports, in 92 percent of judicial overrides in Alabama, “elected judges have overruled jury verdicts of life [in prison] to impose the death penalty.”

In election years, some judges are particularly under pressure to override a jury’s recommendation for a life sentence because the judge (a politician, after all) doesn’t want to appear soft on crime.

The bill, sponsored by State Sen. Dick Brewbaker (R-Montgomery) in the Senate and State Rep. Christopher England (D-Tuscaloosa) in the House, probably has a long way to go.

However, considering recent decisions by the US Supreme Court, the days of judicial override in Alabama are likely numbered.

“The US Supreme Court has made it pretty clear that they do not like it and think this is a bad practice,” Brewbaker said in his interview with APR’s Britt. “Now that Delaware and Florida have gotten rid of it, Alabama is the only State that still practices it.”

Brewbaker’s and England’s bills are long overdue. They’re not enough, but in Alabama, we take what we can get.

“It doesn’t seem to make sense to me to wait until the Supreme Court strikes down our death penalty statute just because we want to hold on to what arguably is a bad practice anyway,” Brewbaker said. “I think a lot of people, even if they think judicial override is a good idea, realize that in the long run, it will cost us the whole death penalty statute.”

That would be fine with me, but unlikely to happen. Ironic, in a way, that it would take a law to make application of Alabama’s State killing machine more fair to save it from its deserved abolition.

Joey Kennedy, a Pulitzer Prize winner, writes a column every week for Alabama Political Reporter. Email: [email protected]

 

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