Alabama death row prisoner John Parker faces execution on June 10, 2010. EJI lawyers have filed papers in the Alabama Supreme Court asking the court to stay the execution because the trial court improperly sentenced Mr. Parker to death even though his jury decided he should be sentenced to life in prison without parole.
Mr. Parker was convicted of capital murder for his role in a murder-for-hire scheme. The victim’s husband was involved in an affair and had taken out an insurance policy on his wife before hiring someone to kill her. After the murder, he committed suicide and thus was never prosecuted. The man hired by the husband to commit the offense (who in turn hired Mr. Parker and his codefendant) was convicted of capital murder and sentenced to life in prison without parole.
Mr. Parker and his codefendant both were convicted of capital murder and sentenced to life in prison by juries, but were condemned to death by trial judges who overrode the jury verdicts at sentencing.
Of the 35 states with the death penalty, Alabama is one of only three that allow a trial judge to override a jury’s verdict of life without parole and impose death. Of these three, Alabama is the only 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.
Several years after Mr. Parker’s state appeals, the Alabama Supreme Court clarified that some standards do exist. The Court ruled that when a jury has recommended life without parole, the trial judge must give serious consideration to that recommendation and can set it aside and impose death only if he provides a convincing written explanation of the problems with the jury’s verdict.
Mr. Parker’s trial judge clearly did not comply with these requirements. EJI lawyers are asking the Alabama Supreme Court to stay Mr. Parker’s execution so that it can consider whether Mr. Parker’s sentence is valid under current Alabama law.
Mr. Parker’s jury decided he should be sentenced to life without parole after hearing evidence about his intellectual limitations; his lifelong problems with impulse control and decision-making; and the fact he was only 19 at the time of the offense. The jury also heard that John Parker had no significant prior criminal history and no history of violence. And the jury learned that Mr. Parker may not have been the person who actually inflicted the fatal injuries on the victim.
Without hearing any additional evidence, the trial judge overrode the jury’s life verdict and sentenced Mr. Parker to death. EJI lawyers argue in the Alabama Supreme Court that the jury’s life verdict was based on substantial mitigating evidence and the judge’s override was improper.
Mr. Parker’s execution date is the second in Alabama this year. Tommy Whisenhant was executed on May 27, 2010.