The Supreme Court of Alabama has unanimously upheld the state's capital murder sentencing scheme, which signifies Alabama as the last state in the country that allows for this type of scheme.
The ruling allows for judicial override, which means a judge can impose the death penalty even after a jury has recommended a lesser sentence.
This happened in Montgomery county in 2008, when Circuit Judge Truman Hobbs overrode a jury’s decision to sentence Mario Woodward to life in prison without the possibility of parole for killing Montgomery police officer Keith Houts.
After finding him guilty, the jury recommended life in prison without parole, “But Hobbs said the 34-year-old should die for killing Houts in September 2006,” the Advertiser reported at the time of the sentencing.
In March, Jefferson County Circuit Judge Tracie Todd ruled that the judicial override sentencing scheme was unconstitutional in light of Hurst v. Florida – a January U.S. Supreme Court decision stating that Florida’s sentencing scheme, which also incorporated a judicial override system, was unconstitutional.
Florida’s scheme left it to the judge to find the aggravating factors, not the jury.
The case that sparked Alabama's judicial override appellate process stems from a case involving four men who were charged with three capital murders.
Defense attorneys argued the men should be barred from receiving the death penalty based on that the Supreme Court of the United States' decision.
Todd ruled in their favor, which barred prosecutors from seeking the death penalty.
In her 28-page ruling, Todd called the judicial override practice a “life-to-death override epidemic” and questioned Alabama’s partisan judicial elections.
“There is a time and place for diplomacy and subtlety,” Todd wrote. “That time and place has been expunged by the dire state of the justice system in Alabama. It is clear, from here on the front line, that Alabama’s judiciary has unequivocally been hijacked by partisan interests and unlawful legislative neglect.”
Alabama Attorney General Luther Strange asked the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals to vacate Todd’s order shortly after it was issued.
In June the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals vacated her decision, stating that Alabama’s scheme differs from Florida’s because in Alabama the jury determines the aggravating factors before deciding the sentence.
Jerry Bohannon, one of the defendants challenging Alabama's sentencing scheme, subsequently petitioned for a writ of certiorari.
Upon review, Alabama Supreme Court Justices echoed points made by the Court of Criminal Appeals.
"Because in Alabama a jury, not the judge, determines by a unanimous verdict the critical finding that an aggravating circumstance exists beyond a reasonable doubt to make a defendant death-eligible, Alabama's capital-sentencing scheme does not violate the Sixth Amendment," wrote acting Chief Justice Lyn Stuart;
Former Chief Justice Roy Moore was suspended from office without pay on Friday, but the seven remaining justices concurred.
Strange praised the court’s decision, stating “Today’s ruling is an important victory for victims and for criminal justice. The Hurst ruling has no bearing whatsoever on the constitutionality of Alabama’s death penalty, which has been upheld numerous times.”
Since Hurst, The United States Supreme Court has told the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals to reconsider appeals filed on behalf of at least three Alabama death row inmates.
Source: Montgomery Advertiser, Kelsey Davis, September 30, 2016
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