Alabama’s Death Penalty System Generates Growing Criticism


Holman Prison in Atmore, Alabama

Alabama’s recent attempt to execute Vernon Madison, an elderly man suffering from dementia, renewed questions about the state’s use of the death penalty.

Vernon Madison’s case highlights many of the structural problems with Alabama’s death penalty. Mr. Madison was convicted three times; his first two trials were reversed because of prosecutorial misconduct. The Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals found that prosecutors illegally removed African Americans from the jury because of their race at the first trial, and at the second trial, the prosecutor presented illegal evidence.

Mr. Madison was sentenced to death even though his jury voted for life. Alabama is the only state in the country where judges routinely override jury verdicts of life to impose capital punishment.

In light of the “underlying inequities and hideous flaws of Alabama’s death penalty process” illustrated by Mr. Madison’s case, the Montgomery Advertiser last week called on Alabama to ban execution in favor of life sentences without parole.

Alabama has the largest death row per capita in the United States, and the nation’s highest death sentencing rate.

Unlike every other state in the country that uses the death penalty, Alabama does not provide legal assistance to death row inmates to challenge the inadequate representation they received at trial or other aspects of their convictions or sentences in post-conviction proceedings.

Alabama is still the only state in the country without a state-funded program to provide legal assistance to death row prisoners, even though cases like that of Anthony Ray Hinton, who was exonerated after 30 years on death row for a crime he did not commit when EJI lawyers took on his postconviction appeal, prove the critical need for counsel.

The failure to provide adequate counsel to capital defendants and death row prisoners is a defining feature of Alabama’s death penalty. Whether a defendant will be sentenced to death typically depends more on the quality of his legal team than any other factor. Yet in Alabama, there is no state-wide public defender program and, in some counties, defendants have been sentenced to death after trials where they were represented by a lawyer who did not meet even the minimum requirement of five years of criminal defense experience. Nearly half of the people on Alabama’s death row were represented at trial by appointed lawyers whose compensation for out-of-court preparation was capped by statute at $1000.

There are continued questions about race and the death penalty in Alabama. Although Black people in Alabama constitute 27 percent of the total population, none of the 19 appellate court judges and only one of the 42 elected District Attorneys in Alabama is Black. Each year in Alabama, nearly 65 percent of all murders involve Black victims, yet 73 percent of the people currently awaiting execution in Alabama were convicted of crimes in which the victims were white. Fewer than 5 percent of all murders in Alabama involve Black defendants and white victims, but over 52 percent of Black death row prisoners have been sentenced for killing someone white.

Alabama’s trial and appellate court judges are elected. Because judicial candidates frequently campaign on their support and enthusiasm for capital punishment, political pressure injects unfairness and arbitrariness into judges’ decisions to override jury life verdicts and impose the death penalty. The proportion of death sentences imposed by override often is elevated in election years. In 2008, 30 percent of new death sentences were imposed by judge override, compared to 7 percent in 1997, a non-election year. In some years, half of all death sentences imposed in Alabama have been the result of override. Nearly 20 percent of the people currently on Alabama’s death row were sentenced to death through judicial override.

Questions about whether Alabama’s capital sentencing statute comports with the Constitution are mounting in the wake of the United States Supreme Court’s decision in Hurst v. Florida striking down Florida’s capital sentencing scheme. Alabama’s statute has the same defect that the Supreme Court declared unconstitutional in Hurst, and earlier this month, the Court granted review in a case challenging Alabama’s death penalty scheme, vacated the death sentence, and remanded for reconsideration in light of Hurst.

Finally, the State of Alabama has spent more than four years in litigation defending legal challenges to its lethal injection protocol amid persistent questions about whether it constitutes cruel and unusual punishment.

Alabama’s attempt to execute Vernon Madison, an elderly man suffering from dementia, renewed questions about its use of the death penalty.