Over the objections of two Justices of the Alabama Supreme Court, John Parker was executed today afer courts refused to review the trial judge’s decision to sentence him to death even though the jury overwhelmingly decided he should be sentenced to life imprisonment without parole. EJI lawyers recently filed papers on Mr. Parker’s behalf at the Alabama Supreme Court and the United States Supreme Court asking for a stay of the execution because the trial court improperly overrode the jury’s verdict. Over dissents from Chief Justice Sue Bell Cobb and Justice Champ Lyons, the Alabama Supreme Court denied a stay yesterday and the United States Supreme Court denied a stay this afternoon.
At his trial in Colbert County, after finding him guilty of capital murder, a jury of 12 people who support the death penalty heard evidence about John Parker’s intellectual limitations; his lifelong problems with impulse control and decision-making; the fact he was only 19 at the time of the offense; that he had no significant prior criminal history and no history of violence; and that he may not have been the person who actually inflicted the fatal injuries on the victim. Based on this evidence, the jury voted 10-2 that Mr. Parker should NOT be executed and instead should be sentenced to life in prison without parole.
However, the trial judge substituted his opinion for that of the jurors, and overrode the jury’s verdict and sentenced Mr. Parker to death.
Judicial override of life verdicts is a highly controversial practice, given that in every other aspect of a criminal case, the jury is the voice of the people. Of the 35 states with the death penalty, Alabama is one of only three that allows a trial judge to override a jury’s verdict of life without parole and impose death. Of these three, Alabama is the only state where judge overrides are frequent. It is also a state that elects trial judges in partisan elections.
The other two states, Florida and Delaware, have long maintained tight regulations on a trial judge’s ability to overrule the jury’s judgment in this way. By contrast, when Mr. Parker’s sentence was reviewed on appeal, no meaningful standards regulated an Alabama trial judge’s ability to ignore a jury’s recommendation of life without parole.
Mr. Parker’s execution is the second in Alabama this year. Tommy Whisenhant was executed on May 27, 2010. Last year, Alabama has executed more people than in any single year since 1949. With state and local budget crises emerging and intensifying across the recession-wracked United States, jurisdictions are re-examining the death penalty’s high price tag, growing evidence of unreliability and concerns about wrongful convictions. Alabama is a counter-example, as its execution rate increases and it continues to execute people like Mr. Parker, whose jury of his peers determined that life without parole was the just punishment in this case.