Monday, March 7, 2016

Judge rules Alabama death penalty unconstitutional

A Jefferson County, Alabama judge ruled that Alabama's capital murder sentencing scheme, which allows judges to override jury recommendations of life without parole and instead impose the death penalty, is unconstitutional, reported The Birmingham News.
In making her ruling after a hearing, Jefferson County Circuit Judge Tracie Todd barred the death penalty in the cases of four men charged in three murders. "The Alabama capital sentencing scheme fails to provide special procedural safeguards to minimize the obvious influence of partisan politics or the potential for unlawful bias in the judiciary," Todd said in reading her written ruling from the bench.
"As a result, the death penalty in Alabama is being imposed in a "wholly arbitrary and capricious" manner." The result of Todd's order is that the judge won't allow the death penalty to be imposed in the cases before her. But attorneys present at the hearing said it would be up to other judges whether to follow her example. But Todd said her ruling likely will be appealed by prosecutors. If an appellate court were to uphold her ruling, then it would become a precedent and apply to cases around the state, attorneys said.
"Judge Todd's ruling today is not a general pronouncement for the State of Alabama, but is strictly limited to the four cases upon which she ruled in the Jefferson County Circuit Court," Alabama Attorney General Luther Strange said Thursday afternoon. "Alabama's capital sentencing statutes are constitutional. Just yesterday the Alabama Supreme Court denied the appeal of a capital murder defendant who had filed a similar pre‑trial motion, and the Court refused to declare Alabama's capital statute's unconstitutional. We are currently reviewing the Judge's written order, and expect to file an appeal. We fully expect today's ruling by Judge Todd to be reversed."

Todd had heard arguments from lawyers for capital murder defendants Benjamin Acton, Terrell McMullin, Stanley Chatman, and Kenneth Billups. The judge barred the death penalty in their cases. "This is huge," Emory Anthony, attorney for Chatman, said of Todd's ruling. "I would hope that the other courts will go along with her decision."
Todd ruled that Alabama's the capital murder scheme is unconstitutional under 6th Amendment and barred from being imposed in the cases.
The death penalty in Alabama "is being imposed in a wholly and unconstitutional manner," Todd said.
Todd also said that Alabama leads the nation in which judges override juries recommendations for life with out parole in capital cases and instead impose the death penalty. "Alabama has become a clear outlier," she said.
"Jefferson County leads the state in total death sentences resulting from judicial overrides, with 17, according to the (Equal Justice Initiative) study, which looked at the sentencing since the U.S. Supreme Court allowed capital punishment to resume in 1976 after a four-year nationwide ban."
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