The State of Alabama plans to execute Ronald Smith tomorrow even though his jury rejected the death penalty and decided he should be sentenced to life imprisonment without parole. Alabama is the only state in the country that allows a judge to override the jury and impose a death sentence when the jury returns a verdict for life.
Florida and Delaware previously allowed judge override, but on January 12, the United States Supreme Court struck down Florida’s death penalty statute, holding in Hurst v. Florida that a jury, not a judge, must find each fact necessary to impose a death sentence. The Court found that the “jury’s mere recommendation is not enough.”
In response to Hurst, Florida changed its sentencing law and abolished judicial override, and in August, the Delaware Supreme Court struck down that state’s death penalty statute after finding it violates the Sixth Amendment.
That leaves Alabama as an outlier, the only state in the country where an elected trial judge can disregard a jury verdict for life and impose the death penalty. In stark contrast, in nearly every other death penalty state, the death penalty cannot be imposed unless all 12 jurors vote for death.
An elected judge in Madison County, Alabama, sentenced Ronald Smith to death in 1995 despite the jury’s life verdict. If Alabama executes him tomorrow, he will be the 11th person put to death in Alabama despite a jury verdict rejecting the death penalty and the 30th person executed despite prosecutors’ failure to convince all 12 jurors that death was the appropriate sentence.
Alabama’s last execution was in January. The execution of Christopher Brooks renewed questions about the efficacy of the drugs the state proposes to use in Mr. Smith’s lethal injection, and Mr. Smith is challenging the constitutionality of the state’s execution protocol.
On November 3, the United States Supreme Court stayed the execution of 74-year-old Tommy Arthur amid questions about the legality of Alabama’s method of execution and the constitutionality of its death penalty statute.
Mr. Smith currently is seeking a stay of execution from the United States Supreme Court.