By Joey Kennedy
Alabama Political Reporter
Most readers know that I oppose the death penalty. I don’t believe the State should ever take something from somebody it can’t make right.
When the State kills a person, the State can’t take that back. The person is dead.
I understand and, indeed, agree that there are crimes that deserve a death penalty. It’s simply that just because somebody deserves to die for his crimes doesn’t mean he should die for his crimes in a State-sanctioned execution.
Plus, later on, if a group like the Equal Justice Initiative or another organization looks into a crime and finds the State made a mistake with a death sentence, once that sentence is carried out, it’s too late to make it right.
That’s happened before.
I’m encouraged that the State House of Representatives passed Sen. Dick Brewbaker’s bill to not allow judges to override a jury’s sentencing in capital cases.
Judges have a lot of authority. But allowing a judge to decide to sentence somebody to die after a jury has decided to give that person a life sentence is not a power elected judges should have.
As we know, in Alabama judges are elected. That’s a mistake to begin with, but they are. That’s the system.
Allowing an elected judge to overrule a jury’s decision is wrong. We depend on juries to decide the guilt or innocence of defendants. We respect that decision. Why, then, would we allow a judge – elected, no less – to override that same jury’s decision to sentence a defendant to life in prison?
We certainly don’t allow a judge to overrule a jury if that jury finds a defendant guilty or not guilty. The judge can’t just come in and proclaim the jury is wrong, and the defendant is not guilty or guilty after all.
So if Gov. Dr. Robert Bentley signs the bill passed by the House, judges in Alabama no longer will be able to override a jury’s decision on a capital crime sentence, either. And, that’s as it should be.
Besides, this issue was heading for nullification by the federal courts. One of the reasons Brewbaker (R-Republican) proposed the bill was that he knew judicial override was headed to the courts and would most likely be tossed out, once again causing Alabama taxpayers to foot the legal bill in a losing battle.
Alabama remains the only State that still allows judicial override. The Supreme Court, in a Florida case, has already spoken against judicial override there, so we know where the High Court stands.
Look at the facts, too.
As reported by The Montgomery Advertiser, the Equal Justice Initiative, based in Montgomery, says that “101 judicial overrides in Alabama from 1978 to 2016 changed a defendant’s sentence from life in prison to death. 11 changed the sentence from death to life.” In election years, judges wanting to appear tough were under even more pressure to pick death over life in prison in capital cases.
The death penalty is already brutal enough. We’ll still have it, but at least a jury will have to impose it. Not a judge running for re-election.
For an elected judge to come behind a jury and override the jury’s well-considered decision is wrong.
Bentley should sign the bill, and let’s put the wrong-headed decision that allows judges to override juries on capital cases behind us. Finally.
Joey Kennedy, a Pulitzer Prize winner, writes a column every week for Alabama Political Reporter. Email: [email protected]