In the face of growing evidence about the unreliability of the death penalty, and in sharp contrast with national trends, Alabama once again had the highest death sentencing rate in the United States in 2013. With five new death sentences, Alabama’s per capita death sentencing led the nation.
In addition to having the highest death sentencing rate, Alabama also continues to have the country’s largest death row population per capita.
Judicial Override in Alabama
Contributing to Alabama’s heavy use of the death penalty is judicial override. Alabama is the only state where judges routinely override jury verdicts of life to impose capital punishment. Since 1976, Alabama judges have overridden jury verdicts 111 times. Although judges have authority to override life or death verdicts, in 91% of overrides elected judges have overruled jury verdicts of life to impose the death penalty.
United States Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, joined in part by Justice Stephen Breyer, dissenting from the Court’s decision to deny review in an Alabama death penalty case this year, observed that Alabama “has become a clear outlier” when it comes to judicial override. Of the three states – Alabama, Delaware, and Florida – that allow a trial judge to override the jury’s sentencing decision, “Alabama now stands as the only one in which judges continue to override jury verdicts of life without parole.” Three people have been sentenced to death by Alabama judges despite jury life verdicts since EJI’s 2011 report on judge override.
One person was executed in Alabama in 2013. Andrew Lackey was put to death on July 25, 2013, after his severe mental illness led him to give up his appeals.
Alabama’s last two executions involved mentally ill men with histories of suicide attempts who did not challenge their death sentences or executions. Christopher Johnson was executed on October 20, 2011, despite serious questions about his mental competency, the fairness of his trial, and the lack of meaningful appellate review after the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals permitted him to waive the remainder of his appeals.
Death Penalty in Decline Nationwide
In 2013 the use of the death penalty in the United States continued its steady decline by almost every measure. The number of new death sentences in 2013 was near its lowest level since the death penalty was reinstated in the 1970s. Executions nationwide continue to fall. Thirty-eight people were executed in the United States in 2013, compared to forty-three in 2012. Since 1976, the overwhelming majority of executions (1110 of 3108) have been carried out by states in the South.
This year, public support for the death penalty in America dropped to its lowest level since 1972. And in May, Maryland became the 18th state to abolish the death penalty; the sixth in just the last six years. Thirty states, plus the District of Columbia, the federal government, and the U.S. military, have not had an execution in over 5 years.