Supreme Court Justices Criticize Alabama’s Death Penalty


Two United States Supreme Court justices wrote that it is time for the Court to re-examine the unique Alabama practice of allowing elected trial judges to override jury sentencing verdicts of life imprisonment and impose the death penalty.

On Monday, the Court denied a request to review the case of Mario Woodward, who was sentenced to death in Alabama even though his jury voted against imposing the death penalty. Justice Sotomayor, joined in part by Justice Breyer, dissented from the Court’s decision to deny review, observing that Alabama “has become a clear outlier” when it comes to judicial override.

Three states – Alabama, Delaware, and Florida – allow a trial judge to override the jury’s sentencing decision. But only one defendant has ever been condemned to death by judicial override in Delaware, and the Delaware Supreme Court overturned his sentence. No Florida judge has overridden a jury’s life verdict since 1999. As Justice Sotomayor observed, “Alabama now stands as the only one in which judges continue to override jury verdicts of life without parole.”

Asking why Alabama judges alone continue to override jury verdicts, the dissenters assessed data from EJI’s override report and other sources and concluded that the “only answer that is supported by empirical evidence is one that . . . casts a cloud of illegitimacy over the criminal justice system: Alabama judges, who are elected in partisan proceedings, appear to have succumbed to electoral pressures.”

That Alabama judges frequently override life verdicts even where the jury’s decision was unanimous, they do so without providing a meaningful explanation, and factors including race and re-election prospects impact override decisions suggest that override in Alabama does not square with the Court’s Eighth Amendment jurisprudence forbidding arbitrary infliction of capital punishment, the dissenters wrote.

Justice Sotomayor also said that the Court’s Sixth Amendment cases render Alabama’s sentencing scheme “constitutionally suspect” because it permits a judge – as in Mr. Woodward’s case – to impose the death penalty “only because he disagreed with the jury’s assessment of the facts.”

Because much has changed since the Court approved Alabama’s statute eighteen years ago, and “[t]oday, Alabama stands alone” in condemning prisoners to death despite the jury’s decision that he should live, Justices Sotomayor and Breyer concluded that the Court should give it “a fresh look.”

No capital sentencing procedure in the United States has come under more criticism as unreliable, unpredictable, and arbitrary than the unique Alabama practice of permitting elected trial judges to override jury verdicts of life and impose death sentences.

Twenty-one percent of the 199 people on Alabama’s death row in 2011 were sentenced to death through judicial override.