By Chip Brownlee
Alabama Political Reporter
MONTGOMERY — A bill that would end Alabama’s judicial override sentencing system, which allows judges to override juries and impose the death penalty, passed the State Senate Thursday with a near-unanimous vote.
Sen. Dick Brewbaker (R-Montgomery), sponsored the bill, which would prohibit a judge from overriding a jury’s sentence. Under the bill, at least 10 of 12 jurors must vote for death for a defendant to receive the sentence.
“It wasn’t an anti-death-penalty vote,” Brewbaker said Wednesday. “It was cleaning up a procedure that is detrimental to the jury system and calls into question jurisprudence in Alabama.”
Brewbaker, and Sen. Cam Ward (R-Alabaster), who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee, referred to ending judicial override as a “moral” issue.
“This is not an indictment or somehow anything against our judges,” Ward said. “At the end of the day, it is morally wrong for us to allow this to continue in our State. We have a jury system and a jury process for a reason.”
Only one senator, Sen. Tripp Pittman, R-Daphne, voted against the measure.
“I have confidence in judges sitting through trials that are very complicated,” Pittman told APR. “Judges have my confidence to have that discretion. I think it’s important. … I do support the death penalty. I do think that the judges need that prerogative. Sometimes crimes are just so heinous that they rise to that level.”
Last year, the Alabama became the last state in the US with judicial override after the US Supreme Court ruled against Florida’s judicial override sentencing scheme. Over the next several months, the Florida Supreme Court and the Delaware Supreme Court killed judicial override in those states.
But in January, The US Supreme Court refused to hear a challenge to Alabama’s system of judicial override from several death row inmates, including Thomas Arthur, who — after another Supreme Court decision Monday — will be scheduled for his eight execution.
Arthur escaped seven previous execution dates unscathed because of several appeals. Though Arthur’s case, in particular, didn’t affect Pittman’s decision today, he said, it is an example of an appeals process that needs to be reviewed.
“I think you do need to look at how to run those appeals concurrently,” Pittman said. “I do think the Tommy Arthur case is an example of how someone can have seven different executions scheduled and are able to abuse the system in a case where a man was paid to execute a woman’s husband.”
Even with Alabama’s legal victories, the State’s system remains the only “hybrid sentencing system” in the country. Juries give a nonbinding advisory sentence — either for death or for life — and the judge then makes the final determination.
In Arthur’s case, his trial jury voted 11-1 for an advisory verdict of death, but the vote wasn’t unanimous, as most other states’ death-penalty sentences require. Under Brewbaker’s bill, Arthur still would have gotten the death penalty.
Brewbaker said his bill as written was not retroactive, but the Senate passed an amendment to the bill that would more clearly define that anyone who received the death penalty from a judge before its passage will not be able to have it reversed under this law.
Since 1976, more than 92 percent of 107 overrides have resulted in a judge imposing the death penalty when a trial jury voted to recommend life in prison, unlike Arthur’s case, according to Montgomery’s Equal Justice Initiative.
The Supreme Court decisions this year effectively ruled Alabama’s system constitutional, but that didn’t stop 30 senators from passing Brewbaker’s bill Thursday.
Rep. Chris England, D-Tuscaloosa, has similar legislation in the House, which would also end judicial override but would require a unanimous jury vote for death. England’s version would put Alabama in line with all other states, which require a unanimous jury vote.
“I think it’s clear that the will of the body is there to do something about judicial override overall,” England said. “I think there may be a couple of differences of opinion about the specifics like unanimity of the jury. I think it will work itself through the process.”
England said he supports both bills.
“My opinion is that it restores faith in the outcome of the cases,” England said. “There’s some belief there that some judges who are politically motivated and want to give the appearance that they’re tough on crime to help their chances at re-election. I think that this will restore public confidence in the process going forward.”
The House Judiciary Committee gave England’s bill a favorable report and it should be brought before the full House as soon as Tuesday.
“We obviously all have differences of opinion about how bills should be done, but at the end of the day I think the overriding concept in judicial override is that passing the bill ending that practice will be a good step forward.”
Brewbaker’s legislation now heads to the House. If it is passed, it would be sent to the Governor for his signature before becoming law.