If a jury sentences you to life in prison, you may unexpectantly be headed for the death chamber if you live in Alabama.
A new report by the Equal Justice Initiative reveals that of the 34 states with death penalties, Alabama is the only jurisdiction where judges routinely override verdicts of life in prison in favor of death penalties.
In 1976 the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty in Alabama after a four-year-ban. Since then, state judges have overturned 107 jury decisions in capital cases; in 92 percent of those cases they rejected the jury’s recommendation for life in prison and replaced it with death sentences.
Over 50 percent of the overrides in Alabama have imposed the death penalty on African-Americans, though Blacks only constitute 26 percent of the state’s total population. Alabama also has the highest per capita death sentencing rate in the country. Last year they sentenced more offenders to death than Texas, whose population is nearly 25 million, in comparison to Alabama’s 4.5 million.
“No capital sentencing procedure in the United States has come under more criticism as unreliable, unpredictable and arbitrary than the unique Alabama practice of permitting elected trial judges to override jury verdicts of life and impose death sentences,” the study’s authors state.
Override is currently only legal in three states: Alabama, Delaware and Florida. In Florida and Delaware, override is usually used to reverse a jury’s death verdict, however. Additionally, in Delaware, no one is on death row as a result of an override, and since 1999 there have not been any jury decisions overridden for a death sentence in Florida. However, 21 percent of Alabama’s 199 people on death row are there as a result of judges overriding their sentence.
Alabama Mobile Circuit Judge Ferrill McRae acknowledged in the past that “some judges are more prone to give the death penalty than others.” Five of the six men he sentenced to die by override are African-American, and life sentences were never replaced for a jury’s decision of death under his authority, even in a case where an all-white jury recommended death for a Black, mentally retarded man who could not read the confession he signed.
State lawmakers have tried to rid Alabama’s elected judges of this power, but they have yet to be successful.
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(Photo: Jim Young/Landov)