More than 80 People Sentenced to Death in Alabama as a Result of ‘Judge Override’


Alabama is the only state in the country that allows standardless judicial override: Alabama judges can, and frequently do, reject jury verdicts for life without parole and impose the death penalty. New research from EJI shows that more than 80 people have been sentenced to death by judges even though their juries decided that death was not the appropriate punishment. Fueled by “tough on crime” rhetoric in partisan judicial elections, judicial override in Alabama is on the rise. In 2006, 30% of new death sentences were imposed by judges who rejected jury verdicts for life without parole.

Alabama is the only state that gives a trial judge unrestricted authority to overrule the jury’s sentencing decision. Florida and Delaware permit judicial override only in restricted circumstances.

Since 1976, Alabama judges have overruled jury verdicts and imposed the death penalty in more than 80 cases. In contrast, judges overrode in favor of life without parole in only a handful of cases.

Of 198 prisoners currently on Alabama’s death row, 40 were sentenced to life without parole by juries. Five of the last 38 prisoners executed in Alabama were sentenced to death by a judge who overruled the jury’s life verdict.

Alabama judges have overruled unanimous life verdicts, such as in the cases of death row prisoners Shonnell Jackson, William Bush, and Oscar Doster, and several judges routinely override capital sentencing juries, such as Mobile County Judge Ferrell McRae, who has rejected jury verdicts for life in five cases and never overruled a jury’s verdict for death.

The constitutionality of Alabama’s override scheme has been called into question by the United States Supreme Court’s ruling in Ring v. Arizona, 536 U.S. 584 (2002), which held that juries, not judges, must make the factual findings statutorily required before a death sentence can be imposed. The decision struck down statutes that permitted a judge, without a jury, to determine whether a defendant could receive the death penalty, and leaves Alabama as the only state where unrestricted judicial override still plays a major role in capital cases.

Standardless override is particularly problematic in Alabama because Alabama judges are selected in hotly contested partisan elections in which judges campaign on their record of imposing death sentences. Together with the absence of a statewide public defender system, prosecutorial misconduct, racial discrimination, and geographic disparities in the death sentencing rate, the practice of judicial override raises concerns about the fairness, reliability, and constitutionality of death sentencing in Alabama.