H. Thomas Wells Jr., president of the American Bar Association and a partner in the Birmingham office of Maynard, Cooper and Gale, called for a thorough, government-sponsored study of state’s death penalty system to address much-needed reforms in how Alabama imposes capital punishment.
“That study is a life-and-death necessity,” wrote Wells. Citing concerns about adequate indigent defense, lack of standards for identifying intellectual disability, post-conviction DNA testing and inadequate jury instructions, Wells focused on Alabama’s unique status when it comes to judicial override of jury sentences in death penalty cases.
Alabama is the only state in the country that allows standardless judicial override: Alabama judges can, and frequently do, reject jury verdicts for life without parole and impose the death penalty. As Wells points out, this “can create pressure for a judge to sentence a person to death for reasons having little to do with the circumstances of the crime or the characteristics of the offender.”
More than 80 people have been sentenced to death in Alabama by judges even though their juries decided that death was not the appropriate punishment.