U.S. Supreme Court Rules Alabama Death Penalty Must Be Re-Examined


The United States Supreme Court today granted review, vacated the judgment, and remanded to the state court in the case of Bart Johnson, who challenged his death sentence after the Court struck down an identical death sentencing scheme in Hurst v. Florida earlier this year.

On January 12, the Supreme Court held in Hurst v. Florida that Florida’s capital sentencing 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.”

Alabama’s death penalty scheme has exactly the same defect that was declared unconstitutional in Hurst. Like in Florida, Alabama permits elected judges to overrule a jury’s recommendation of a life sentence and instead impose the death penalty.

In Bart Johnson’s case, like in Hurst, the judge imposed the death penalty based on finding two aggravating factors that were not clearly found by the jury.

The Supreme Court initially denied review of Mr. Johnson’s case, but he asked the Court to reconsider that decision after Hurst was decided. Today, the Court entered an order granting Mr. Johnson’s petition for review, vacating the state court’s judgment upholding his death sentence, and remanding for reconsideration in light of Hurst.