Alabama’s Disproportionately High Death Sentencing And Execution Rates At Odds With National Trend


New data shows that, while other states have dramatically slowed their rates of death sentencing and executions in recent years as evidence about unreliable imposition of the death penalty has grown, Alabama’s disproportinately high death-sentencing rate remains the highest in the nation.

Alabama sentences more people to death per capita than any other state in the nation. And it has, by a substantial margin, the nation’s largest per capita death row population: 44 people are condemned to die on Alabama’s death row for every one million residents (more than twice the number in Florida and three times that in Texas).

New federal government data shows that, in 2008, Alabama (with a population of 4.7 million) sentenced 10 people to death – more than Texas (pop. 24 million) – and its average per capita death sentencing rate was eight times that of the Lonestar State.

With fewer safeguards permitting review of death cases and the declining availability of lawyers to assist condemned prisoners, Alabama’s execution rate has also increased. In 2009, Alabama executed more people than in any year since the 1940s and more people per capita than any other state in the country. Despite several efforts to recruit counsel, many death row prisoners continue to struggle to find legal represenation.

Alabama’s record stands in stark contrast to the national movement away from capital punishment. Nationwide, 2009 saw the fewest death sentences imposed since 1976. Death sentencing last year declined dramatically even in Texas, and 2009 saw yet another state, New Mexico, join those that have abolished capital punishment altogether.

In addition to having the nation’s highest per capita death sentencing and execution rates, Alabama is the only state in the country that permits judges, without limitation, to override a jury verdict of life without parole and impose a death sentence. More than a quarter of Alabama’s death row prisoners were condemned to death by an elected judge after the jury decided life was the appropriate sentence. In 2008, an election year, 30% of death sentences were imposed by judicial override of jury life verdicts.

Alabama has no state-wide public defender system and over half of the state’s death row prisoners were represented at trial by appointed lawyers whose compensation for out-of-court preparation was capped at $1000.

Racial discrimination remains a dominant feature of Alabama’s death penalty system. Eighty percent of all death sentences are imposed in cases involving white victims even though 65% of all murder victims in the state are African American. Of the 752 people executed in Alabama since 1812, 83% were African Americans.