An Alabama judge ruled this morning that Alabama’s death penalty scheme is unconstitutional, citing the United States Supreme Court’s recent decision striking down Florida’s death penalty scheme because it does not require the jury to make the critical findings necessary to impose the death penalty. Because Alabama has the same sentencing scheme as Florida, the circuit judge found the Court’s decision applies to cases in Alabama as well.
On January 12, the Supreme Court held in Hurst v. Florida that Florida’s scheme violates the Sixth Amendment’s requirement that a jury, not a judge, must find each fact necessary to impose a sentence of death. Because a Florida jury’s recommendation is only advisory and may be overruled by the trial judge, who alone makes the findings necessary to impose death, the “jury’s mere recommendation is not enough.”
Like Florida, Alabama permits elected judges to overrule a jury’s recommendation of a life sentence and instead impose the death penalty. While no Florida judge has overruled a jury recommendation of a life sentence for more than 15 years, Alabama judges have overridden life recommendations 101 times since 1976, including 26 since 2000.
Four defendants awaiting trial on capital murder charges in Jefferson County – Benjamin Acton, Terrell McMullin, Stanley Chatman, and Kenneth Billups – filed motions asking Circuit Judge Tracie Todd to find that Alabama’s death penalty statute is unconstitutional under Hurst.
The circuit court found that Hurst applies to Alabama because the state’s scheme is based on Florida’s scheme. In practice, Alabama has become a clear outlier in its use of judge override to impose the death penalty, the judge found, and the practice has resulted in “wholly arbitrary and capricious” imposition of the death penalty in this state.