Friday, August 19, 2011

Overrides Of Life Sentences By Judges Gives Alabama Highest Per Capita Rate Of Death Sentences

By Steve Bright, cross-posted from Second Class Justice

The Equal Justice Initiative, based in Montgomery, Alabama, issued a report in July, 2011 about the practice of Alabama judges routinely overriding jury verdicts of life imprisonment and imposing the death penalty.  Judge override is the primary reason why Alabama has the highest per capita death sentencing rate and execution rate in the country.  Alabama, a state with a population of 4.5 million, imposed more new death sentences in 2010 than Texas, which has a population of 24 million.

Alabama’s trial and appellate court judges are elected.  Judicial candidates frequently campaign on their support and enthusiasm for capital punishment.  This produces judges who are likely to override.  In addition, judges override to show their support for the death penalty and to avoid criticism for being lenient if challenged in the next election.

Of the 34 states with the death penalty, judicial override of jury sentences is legal in only three:  Alabama, 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.  No death sentences have been imposed by override in Florida since 1999.  In Delaware and Florida, judges occasionally override death verdicts and impose life.

This rarely happens in Alabama.

Among the report’s findings:

• Since 1976, Alabama 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.  In some years, half of all death sentences imposed in Alabama have been the result of override.

• Twenty-one percent of the 199 people on Alabama’s death row at the time the report was issued were sentenced to death through judicial override after juries sentenced them to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole.

• Override rates fluctuate wildly from year to year with the rate often elevated in election years.   In 2008, an election year, 30% of new death sentences were imposed by judge   override, compared to 7% in 1997, a non-election year.

• 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.

• Some judges persistently reject jury life verdicts and impose death.   Two judges in Mobile County, Braxton Kittrell and Ferrill McRae, have overruled 11 life verdicts to impose death.

The entire report is available at


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