One of the many startling things I learned from reading Bryan Stevenson’s book Just Mercy is that Alabama judges regularly impose death sentences even after the jury which convicted the defendant recommended life in prison instead. This is called a judicial “override” and it is unique to Alabama.
Nearly 20% of the people on death row in Alabama were sentenced to life in prison by the jury, only to have the judge override them and hand down a death sentence instead. Alabama judges have overriden jury decisions 111 times since 1976, and 91% of the time they overrode jury decisions of life in prison and instead sentenced the defendant to execution.
Judicial override is legal in only 2 other states–Delaware and Florida. In those states it occurs rarely, and when it does occur it is to override death sentences in favor of life in prison. Only in Alabama do judges routinely replace life in prison verdicts with death sentences.
So why does this happen? Are Alabama juries just too soft-hearted?
The disturbing answer seems to be because judges in Alabama are elected, and because handing down death penalties improves one’s chances of being elected. Overrides are more frequent in election years and capital sentencing is used to show how tough one is (or isn’t) on crime.
That should give us pause.
Ironically perhaps, it was because of a judicial override that at least one wrongly convicted man was ultimately exonerated. The book tells the story of Walter McMillian, convicted of murder in Alabama. The jury in his case returned a sentencing verdict of life in prison. The judge overrode them and sentenced him to death instead. Bryan Stevenson took his case while he was awaiting execution, ultimately demonstrated his innocence and won his release. Had it not been for the work of Bryan Stevenson he would have been executed for a crime he didn’t commit. On the other hand, had he not been on death row he would have spent the rest of his life in prison for a crime he didn’t commit. Of course exoneration is not how it ends for most people on death row. Their stories end with their execution.
It seems hard to believe that in 2015 there is a still a place where death sentences not only still occur (Alabama has the highest per capita death sentencing rate in the country), but where judges boost their election chances by sending to death row people juries have sentenced to life in prison.
But I’ll close with some positive news. As with so many things that are wrong in our society, improvement and change are coming. Even as executions continue (2 are scheduled next week), executions and death sentences have dropped to their lowest level in over 20 years.
The tide has turned on the death penalty. It will someday be a thing of the past.