Override

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.

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34 comments on “Override

  1. gatheringplaceseasonfour says:

    When I was about age six and the electric chair was revived in NC, I knew there is something bad wrong with state-sponsored murder (executions). This was clean, even to a young (if “tenderhearted” young rural boy – firstborn).

    Like

  2. avwalters says:

    I don’t like any decision that we cannot fix. “Wrongly accused” is one category for which the system has appeal alternatives. Even then, the finality of execution, weighed against the potential for error, is too dangerous for me. In the same way, I am against the use of chemicals that persist in our soils and waters, and vehemently against nuclear power. We have no business tinkering in anything that we cannot set to rights in our own lifetimes.

    Liked by 2 people

    • bobraxton says:

      will not vouch for authenticity: Reinhold Niebuhr quotes (showing 1-30 of 52)
      “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”
      ― Reinhold Niebuhr
      tags: inspirational, serenity-prayer 412 likes Like
      “Nothing that is worth doing can be achieved in our lifetime; therefore we must be saved by hope.

      Like

    • Bill says:

      Yep. A couple of years ago we went to a production of the Dead Man Walking play. Before it a man who had been on death row in North Carolina before being exonerated by DNA evidence spoke. He’s spent much of his life in prison, awaiting execution for a crime he didn’t commit. A decade sooner he’d have been killed. That has happened far too often. As far as I’m concerned, even once makes it unacceptable. I’ve heard some disconcerting things from lawyers I know, but have no first hand experience with criminal law and certainly not the death penalty. The book does a powerful job of bringing to light some of the worst problems with the system.

      Liked by 2 people

  3. Joanna says:

    I am glad to hear of your opposition to the death penalty. It was one of those issues I could never understand whilst living in America. How could a country in this day and age with a supposedly Christian background be so pro-death penalty? It speaks to me of a lack of faith in redemption and too focussed on punishment.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Bill says:

      It’s sadly true that we’ve been slow to give it up. But the good news is that is changing rapidly. Death sentences and executions are at 20 year lows and as for Christians nowadays every major American denomination other than Southern Baptists oppose it. And even among conservative evangelicals the tide is turning. I expect it will be completely ended here within the next 10-20 years.

      Liked by 2 people

  4. shoreacres says:

    One of the logical issues I’m having to deal with personally is that rejection of the death penalty logically requires rejection of abortion and assisted suicide. I simply don’t see how I could reject any of the three and not the others. Of course, consistency never has been a distinctly human virtue, but still…

    A thought provoking post.

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    • Bill says:

      I know people who reject all three, along with war and all other forms of violence. They are entirely and consistently “pro life.” Others have principled explanations for acceptance of some but not all of them. But regardless of how one comes down on violence generally, I would hope we could all agree that it is morally reprehensible to allow judges to override jury verdicts to boost their death sentence tally in election years.

      Liked by 1 person

      • shoreacres says:

        Until your post, I would have assumed that was a given. Naive me.

        Like

      • avwalters says:

        One wonders whether the position of Judge should be the subject of elected office at all.

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      • Bill says:

        Judges are elected in Florida too and that does create a special set of issues. The elections are nonpartisan and the Rules of Judicial Ethics restrict the kind of campaigning that can be done. So the reality is that most voters have no knowledge of the candidates when they step into the booth. So how do they decide? For whatever reason, voters tend to prefer women judicial candidates over men. One woman I know, after losing an election, went so far as to legally change her gender neutral name to something more feminine. Another woman I know used her feminine middle name on the ballot rather than the less feminine first name she actually went by. But one of my law partners, a woman, lost her judicial election to a man. She had been appointed by the Governor to fill a judicial vacancy and when the next election rolled around her male opponent did something very unusual. He printed up and mailed out flyers that featured not his photo, but hers. Why? She is black. He used to flyers to inform the voters of what they otherwise wouldn’t have known and, despite her having all the bar endorsements and being by far more qualified, she lost. On the other hand there are problems with appointments too. They’re sometimes returning political favors. Candidates who throw their names in the ring for appointment have to clear a judicial nominating commission, but then a list of those qualified is submitted to the governor and he chooses. I know of at least two sitting judges who I’m confident are on the bench because of their party loyalty and political activism, not their merits as a judge. In Brazil, where I did a lot of work over the years, those who want to be a judge take a test. The person who scores highest on the test gets the spot. That system makes a lot of sense to me. But there the problem is that judges don’t make much money and there is a lot of corruption. I suspect it is more common to appoint judges than to elect them. Here in Virginia they’re appointed. By the way, my friend and former partner is now a sitting US District Court judge, and a highly regarded one at that.

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      • avwalters says:

        Only two?

        All the judges I know (all in California) hold their positions because they were politically active and “the right profile.” Indeed, in one of my earliest legal positions, a colleague who was fighting a speeding ticket (his own), mentioned that he did so, in part, to get to known by the conservative judges. He went on to explain that he was the first in his family (Hispanic) to get a college degree. He made no bones about the fact that he wanted to be a judge. Everything he did, worked towards that end. He picked a political party (with which he did not agree) because it increased his chances. He volunteered for highly visible positions. Lo and behold, within a decade he was a Superior Court Judge (and, I might add, a good one.) I don’t know how you get the politics out of this particular process.

        I don’t know if it is still the case, but when I first passed the Bar, the position of Public Defender was an elected position in Santa Clara County. Think about the hurdles in that campaign!

        Liked by 1 person

    • avwalters says:

      I don’t know that consistency is required on all three of those issues. Taking the life of another, by the state, is a far cry from the personal anguish and reflection one has with respect to assisted suicide. One is a personal choice in how to go about that most human of transitions, how to die well, usually under adverse circumstances. The legal decision to end the life of the convicted is much more fraught with the ramifications of errors in judgment.

      Like

  5. BeeHappee says:

    Thank you, Bill. Looks like the book had touched you deeply, and I can understand why. First thought I had after reading your post: our elected leaders do what those Alabama judges do, multiply by millions.
    Due to some strange Halloween decorations people have – like displays of electric chairs and other executions – my kids had been asking about electric chairs. I have difficult time explaining to children the whole concept of death penalty and execution.

    Like

    • Bill says:

      I already had firm convictions on the death penalty, but I hadn’t realized how often people are executed when there is doubt about their innocence. I also had assumed (wrongly) that people facing death sentences had access to competent legal defense. It’s a messed up system.

      A couple of years ago we went to hear Sister Helen Prejean speak. She wrote Dead Man Walking and has devoted her life to opposing the death penalty. That too was moving.

      It’s a stain on our national character right now, but I’m convinced it will soon be a thing of the past.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Laurie Graves says:

    Progress, while not guaranteed, inches forward, and we all play a part, however small, in helping things go forward or backward. Good post, Bill.

    Like

    • Bill says:

      Thanks Laurie. That’s how I feel too. Sometimes I’m tempted to believe in the inevitability of progress, but unfortunately I agree that it isn’t guaranteed. And there have been plenty of times when humanity took big steps backwards. But because we are by and large good people who want to the best of our communities and our world, so far we’ve always been able to get back on the right track and eventually start pushing forward again. As you say, we all have a part to play.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Wendell miller says:

    I have been a new subscriber. I thought this would be about homesteading. Not! If I want to learn about jail sentences I can look elsewhere. This was a truly sorry thing to write. I am unsubscribing. You would be better off doing some more work on the homestead Bill.

    Like

    • Bill says:

      Most of my posts are related to farming or homesteading, but every now and then I go off the reservation if I have something else on my mind. Over the years I’ve blogged about all sorts of things. This place is sorta like Forrest Gump’s box of chocolates.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. Dearest Bill,
    That is quite some unknown (to me…) information about the laws in Alabama!
    Thanks for taking the time to share this with your audience.
    Never mind if one so-called new subscriber slammed the door shut. He did not belong here to begin with!
    Like you, I don’t only write about one subject and that’s up to you and anyone else.
    Sending you blessings,
    Mariette

    Like

    • Bill says:

      Thanks Mariette, but I didn’t mind his comment, even if it might have been more charitably worded. If he was expecting a blog that is limited to homesteading topics, then I can see how he’d be annoyed to find a post about criminal sentencing in Alabama. Like you, I enjoy reading a variety of things and I like to blog about a variety of things. But it isn’t everybody’s cup of tea. 🙂

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  9. Greg Vaughn says:

    I might have missed it, but I didn’t see anyone mention the fact that God’s law requires the death penalty for anyone who has, after trial, been convicted by the testimony of two or three witnesses of a crime biblically deemed capital. Further, we are not to have pity on them and accept any other sentence. Neither God’s word, nor his justice as defined therein, are subject to progress, and neither can be improved.

    This was a perplexing post (and comments) coming from a professing Christian. I guess I just presumed the Bible would hold more influence on the content of this site.

    Like

    • Bill says:

      A majority of Christians these days favor abolishing the death penalty. I was raised Methodist and the Methodist church has been formally opposed to the death penalty for over 60 years.

      I realize there are still plenty of people, including Christians, who favor the death penalty. But I’m not aware of any who want to apply it as called for in the Levitical Code, which commanded death for those guilty of breaking the Sabbath, blasphemy, adultery, disobedience to parents, etc.

      The author of Just Mercy is a Christian. Walter McMillian, who I mention in the post, was sentenced to death even though the jury voted for life in prison. He was convicted and sentenced to die despite the absence of any witnesses. Ultimately, after serving many years, he was shown to be innocent and was released. Whatever our opinions on the death penalty, presumably we’d all have to agree that he was deserving of mercy.

      Like

  10. Future generations will wonder at our barbarism, but we live in a time of nearly light speed changes in awareness. Hopefully this book will accelerate the pace.

    Like

    • Bill says:

      You’re so right about how quickly changes can occur now. The kind of changes that once took generations, now happen in just a few years. I expect capital punishment will be a thing of the past in the near future.

      Like

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