The Death Penalty in
Equal Justice initiative
PDF REPORT: http://www.eji.org/files/Override_Report.pdf
EXECUTIVE SUMMARY AND MAJOR FINDINGS
No capital sentencing procedure in the
States has come under more criticism as
unreliable, unpredictable, and arbitrary than the unique Alabama
practice of permitting elected trial
judges to override jury verdicts of life and impose death sentences.
Of the 34 states with the death penalty,
is the only jurisdiction where judges routinely override jury verdicts of life
to impose capital punishment.
judges have overridden jury verdicts 107 times. Although judges have authority
to override life or death verdicts, in 92% of overrides elected judges have
overruled jury verdicts of life to impose the death penalty.
Twenty-one percent of the 199 people currently on
death row were sentenced to death through judicial override.
Judge override is the primary reason why
has the highest per capita death sentencing rate and execution rate in the
country. Last year, with a state population of 4.5 million people, Alabama
imposed more new death sentences than Texas,
with a population of 24 million.
Override is legal in only three states:
Delaware, and Florida.
However, Florida and Delaware
have strict standards for override. No one in Delaware
is on death row as a result of an override and no death sentences have been
imposed by override in Florida
since 1999. In Delaware and Florida,
override often is used to overrule jury death verdicts and impose life - which
rarely happens in Alabama.
Override rates fluctuate wildly from year to year. The proportion of death sentences imposed by override often is elevated in election years. In 2008, 30% of new death sentences were imposed by judge override, compared to 7% in 1997, a non-election year. In some years, half of all death sentences imposed in
been the result of override.
There is evidence that elected judges override jury life verdicts in cases involving white victims much more frequently than in cases involving victims who are black. Seventy-five percent of all death sentences imposed by override involve white victims, even though less than 35% of all homicide victims in
Alabama are white.
Some sentencing orders in cases where judges have overridden jury verdicts make reference to the race of the offender and reveal illegal bias and race-consciousness. in one case, the judge explained that he previously had sentenced three black defendants to death so he decided to override the jury’s life verdict for a white defendant to balance out his sentencing record.
Some judges in
persistently reject jury life verdicts to impose death. Two Mobile Counties judges, Braxton Kitrell and Ferrill
McRae, have overruled 11 life verdicts to impose death. Mobile
Judge Randall Homas overrode five jury life verdicts to impose the death
There are considerably fewer obstacles to obtaining a jury verdict of death in Alabama because, unlike in most states with the death penalty, prosecutors in Alabama are not required to obtain a unanimous jury verdict; they can obtain a death verdict with only ten juror votes for death. Capital juries in
Alabama already are
very heavily skewed in favor of the death penalty because potential jurors who
oppose capital punishment are excluded from jury service.