Monday, February 20, 2017

Alabama legislature looks to abolish judicial override in death penalty sentencing

In Alabama, which has the highest death penalty rate per capita in the nation, legislators have taken a step to reduce the arbitrary application of capital punishment in the state, reported the PacificStandard.
The Alabama House Judiciary Committee passed a bill that would stop judges from having the final say in sentencing for capital cases in the state, and instead require a unanimous jury to hand down a death sentence. Usually, a jury decides a defendant’s fate in capital cases, but Alabama is the only state that still has “judicial override,” in which a judge can overrule a jury’s recommendation for a life or death sentence. A similar bill, which includes no language to require a unanimous jury, is concurrently making its way through the Alabama Senate.
Ironically enough, when judicial override originated in Florida in the 1970s, it was intended as a way to prevent juries from over-sentencing the death penalty. After the Supreme Court struck down the death penalty in 1972 for its arbitrary and discriminatory application, Florida came up with the judicial override scheme, in which juries recommend a sentence, but judges could override that decision with sufficient justification. 
The Supreme Court’s concerns were assuaged, and capital punishment was reinstituted in 1976. Alabama adopted a similar judge override statute in 1981, and it’s the only state that still uses the practice, after Delaware and Florida eliminated their override systems last year.
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