Federal Court Affirms Death Sentence Judge Imposed on the Basis of RaceSeptember 29, 2017

This week, the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals upheld an Alabama death sentence that was imposed by a judge who overrode the jury's life verdict and who expressly ordered an execution based on race to insulate death sentences he had imposed on black defendants.

Bobby Waldrop, who is white, was convicted of capital murder in 1999 in Randolph County, Alabama. The jury that convicted him decided he should be sentenced to life in prison without parole, but the trial judge held a separate sentencing hearing where he announced his decision to override the jury's life verdict and sentence Mr. Waldrop to death. At that hearing, the judge, who is white, explained his reason for imposing a death sentence and explicitly stated that he relied on the Mr. Waldrop's race: "If I had not imposed the death sentence [in this case], I would have sentenced three black people to death and no white people."  

The Constitution forbids a trial judge from considering a defendant's race in deciding the appropriate punishment.  EJI attorneys argued in both state and federal court that Bobby Waldrop's death sentence is unconstitutional because the trial judge made it clear that he considered race when imposing the death penalty.

The Eleventh Circuit denied relief, concluding that even though every justice on the Alabama Supreme Court was informed about the trial judge's improper consideration of race, the claim was procedurally barred because Mr. Waldrop's lawyer at trial did not object or properly raise the issue in his initial appeal.

EJI argued that the federal court was obligated to review his claim because imposing the death penalty based on the defendant's race is unconstitutional and constitutes a "fundamental miscarriage of justice." The court refused to grant relief. Circuit Judge Beverly Martin acknowledged in a concurring opinion that the court's decision is highly problematic:  "I am at a loss to otherwise explain how a person being sentenced to death based on his race could be anything other than a fundamental miscarriage of justice."

Earlier this year, the United States Supreme Court granted relief to Duane Buck, who was sentenced to death in Texas after evidence from an expert was presented that he was more likely to commit criminal acts of violence in the future because he is black. The Court held that "it is inappropriate to allow race to be considered as a factor in our criminal justice system." That Mr. Buck "may have been sentenced to death in part because of his race," the Court continued, "is a disturbing departure from a basic premise of our criminal justice system: Our law punishes people for what they do, not who they are."

The Court went on to say that "relying on race to impose a criminal sanction 'poisons public confidence'" in the judicial system and "injures not just the defendant, but 'the law as an institution, . . . the community at large, and . . . the democratic ideal reflected in the processes of our courts.'"

Judge Martin recognized the Court's decision in Buck, and its decision in Pena-Rodriguez v. Colorado, in which it held that racial bias is "a familiar and recurring evil" so harmful to the administration of justice that it cannot be ignored. But, she noted, the Eleventh Circuit has refused to review racial bias claims before, citing the case of Kenneth Fults, who was executed last year, and that of Keith Tharpe, who was scheduled to be executed Tuesday night in Georgia despite his claims that one of his jurors was racist and had sentenced him to death based on his race. The Supreme Court stayed Mr. Tharpe's execution in order to consider Mr. Tharpe's claim of racial bias.

EJI continues to believe that Mr. Waldrop's death sentence is unconstitutional and that racial bias should play no role in the criminal justice system, especially in the decision to impose the death penalty.