A Madison County Circuit Court judge followed the jury’s sentencing verdict and imposed a sentence of life imprisonment without parole on Kenneth Shipp, despite substantial political pressure calling for the judge to override the jury’s verdict and sentence Mr. Shipp to death.
Kenneth Shipp was convicted in February of capital murder in the 2007 shooting of a Huntsville police officer. The jury heard evidence that Mr. Shipp was so impaired by alcohol and drugs that he did not intend to kill the officer. It determined that Mr. Shipp should be sentenced to life in prison without parole, rather than death.
In Alabama, a jury’s sentencing verdict in a capital case is not final. A trial judge may override the jury’s verdict of life in prison without parole and impose a death sentence. Alabama is the only state in the country that allows standardless judicial override, and of the 200 prisoners currently on Alabama’s death row, more than 40 were initially sentence to life without parole by juries.
In this case, several high-profile law enforcement officials actively lobbied the judge to ignore the jury’s verdict and impose a death sentence. Among others, Attorney General Troy King and state Fraternal Order of Police President Bill Davis called for an override in the media and in letters to the judge.
Seeking to influence judges outside the judicial process, particularly in high-profile cases, threatens to distort the administration of justice and has the potential to undermine Alabama’s death penalty system.
The judge in this case resisted the political pressure. At the March 26, 2010, sentencing hearing, with King and Davis in reserved front-row seats, the circuit judge reviewed the evidence in detail and concluded the jury had reached the appropriate result based on the law and the facts. He followed the jury’s sentencing verdict and sentenced Mr. Shipp to life imprisonment without parole, stating that the jury’s ability to apply the law impartially in this high-profile case was a “tribute” to the citizens of Madison County.