Empty jury box in courtroom
Alabama Judges Ignoring Jury Verdicts Leads to Nation's Highest Death Sentencing RateMay 13, 2016

Last night, Vernon Madison avoided becoming the 58th person executed in the State of Alabama in the modern death penalty era, after the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals and the United States Supreme Court ruled that his execution should be stayed because of questions about his competency.

Receiving less attention is that, in most Alabama courtrooms, Mr. Madison would not have been sentenced to death in the first place, because his jury returned a verdict for a sentence of life imprisonment without parole. Mr. Madison was condemned to death solely because the judge in his case overrode the jury's verdict.

Of the 33 states with the death penalty, Alabama is the only jurisdiction where judges routinely override jury verdicts of life to impose capital punishment. Since 1976, Alabama judges have overridden jury verdicts 112 times.

Most judges in Alabama have never overridden a jury verdict of life, but some often do so. Judge Ferrill McRae, the Mobile County Circuit Judge who overrode the jury's verdict and sentenced Mr. Madison to death, has overridden six jury verdicts of life without parole - more than any other judge in Alabama. United States Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor cited Judge McRae in her dissent criticizing judicial override in Alabama, observing that he "campaigned by running several advertisements voicing his support for capital punishment" and boasting about specific cases in which he had imposed the death penalty. The dissent concluded that the only empirically supported reason why Alabama judges alone continue to override jury verdicts is one that "casts a cloud of illegitimacy over the criminal justice system: Alabama judges, who are elected in partisan proceedings, appear to have succumbed to electoral pressures."

As the Birmingham News recently reported, Alabama is an outlier on the death penalty. Because of judge override, Alabama has the highest death sentencing rate in the country.

Recent decisions from the United States Supreme Court have reinvigorated the debate about whether Alabama's judge override scheme is constitutional. In January, the Court in Hurst v. Florida struck down Florida's capital sentencing scheme, which also allowed judges to override jury verdicts for life imprisonment. In the wake of that decision, Florida's legislature changed the law and eliminated override. Alabama's capital sentencing scheme has the same defect that the Supreme Court declared unconstitutional in Hurst, and last week, 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.