The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday said it won't review the cases of 3 Alabama death row inmates.
It was a decision that Alabama's attorney general said reaffirms that the state's death penalty sentencing law is constitutional.
The court denied certiorari, or review, to appeals of death row inmates Tommy Arthur, Jerry Bohannon and Aubrey Shaw.
Arthur, whose Nov. 3 execution was stayed so the U.S. Supreme Court could consider his appeals, still has one appeal pending before the high court based on a different challenge - one regarding Alabama's lethal injection method. Arthur has had 7 executions stayed in the past 15 years.
The U.S. Supreme Court in its order Thursday stated its stay of execution will remain in place pending Arthur's request for the court to review his appeals. If the court refuses to review his appeals, the stay would automatically go away.
In their appeals denied by the U.S. Supreme Court on Monday all three had included challenges to the Alabama law that allows judges to override jury sentencing recommendations in capital murder cases. Their appeals noted that the U.S. Supreme Court in January 2016 had ruled unconstitutional Florida's death penalty sentencing scheme, which also included judicial override.
Alabama now stands alone as the only state with judicial override. Delaware's supreme court ruled in August had ruled that state's law allowing judicial override was unconstitutional.
While the override law was rarely used in Florida or Delaware, Alabama judges in dozens of cases have overridden juries' life without parole recommendations and imposed death instead over the past 2 decades.
Alabama prosecutors have said that Alabama's judicial override law is crafted differently than the other two states. In Alabama, when a jury unanimously convicts a defendant of capital murder, it is based on one of a number of aggravating factors such as murder during the course of a robbery, burglary, or kidnapping.
Alabama Attorney General Luther Strange said the decision by the U.S. Supreme Court on Monday not to hear petitions by Arthur, Shaw and Bohannon "is another victory for the rule of law."
"The U.S. Supreme Court's denial of certiorari petitions from Thomas Arthur, Jerry Bohannon, and Aubrey Shaw, challenging Alabama's death penalty system in light of the 2016 Hurst v. Florida case, is a reaffirmation that Alabama's death sentencing law is constitutional," Strange stated in prepared comments issued by his office.
"Convicted murders have repeatedly challenged Alabama's death penalty sentencing system because it allows for judicial override similar to Florida's law. However, Alabama law also holds that a jury must unanimously find an aggravating factor at either the guilt or sentencing phase--such as when the murder was committed during a robbery, a rape, or a kidnapping - before determining a death sentence. This is a significant distinction between Alabama law and Florida's law which was ruled unconstitutional last year by the Supreme Court."
"Alabama's death penalty law was specifically upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in Harris v. Alabama in 1995, and, as we witnessed again today, the High Court has consistently declined to take challenges to Alabama's law based on the same grounds in which Florida's law was contested," Strange stated. "It should, therefore, be clear to all that Alabama's death penalty sentencing system is constitutional."
The U.S. Supreme Court had vacated the sentences of Alabama death row inmates Ronnie Kirksey, Corey Wimbley, and Ryan Gerald Russell, this year and sent them back to the state appeals court to review in light of its Florida ruling.
Arthur was convicted in the 1982 murder for hire of Troy Wicker of Muscle Shoals. Bohannon was convicted in the Dec. 11, 2010 shooting deaths of Anthony Harvey and Jerry DuBoise outside the Paradise Lounge, a nightclub in Mobile. Shaw was convicted in the stabbing deaths of his great aunt and great uncle in 2007.
The Alabama Supreme Court ruled on Sept. 30 that the state's death penalty sentencing law is constitutional in Bohannon's case in light of the U.S. Supreme Court's ruling in the Hurst case.
Source: al.com, January 23, 2017
Supreme Court lets Alabama judges impose death penalty
The Supreme Court refused Monday to consider challenges to Alabama's death penalty system, the only one in the country that lets judges overrule juries and impose death sentences.
The court's denial of several lower court appeals came a year after the justices ruled 8-1 against a similar capital punishment protocol in Florida. Since that decision, state supreme courts there and in Delaware have struck down those systems.
Many opponents of the Alabama system had expected the justices to take up a challenge. Justice Sonia Sotomayor, in particular, has criticized the state for allowing elected judges to impose executions even when juries recommend life sentences.
A recent study by the Alabama-based Equal Justice Initiative, one of the groups challenging the state's death penalty system, found that judges overrode jury verdicts 107 times in the four decades since the Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty. In nearly all those cases, judges imposed death sentences. The study said 21% of 199 people on the state's death row were sentenced through such judicial overrides.
The state executed 2 prisoners last year, more than any other state except Georgia and Texas. It ranks 7th in total executions since 1976, behind Texas, Oklahoma, Virginia, Florida, Missouri and Georgia.
Last November, 5 justices agreed to block the execution of Alabama's Tommy Arthur, who had raised objections both about judicial override and the state's lethal injection protocol. Chief Justice John Roberts added his vote to those of the 4 liberal justices "as a courtesy" so that the case could be considered for review. It was 1 of 3 cases denied Monday.
The following month, the justices green-lighted the execution of Alabama's Ronald Smith for a 1994 murder in which a judge overrode a jury verdict and sentenced him to death.
In last year's Florida case, Sotomayor ruled that "the 6th Amendment requires a jury, not a judge, to find each fact necessary to impose a sentence of death. A jury's mere recommendation is not enough."
Alabama officials had pointed out differences between their system and Florida's. They argued that in Alabama, juries must find at least 1 aggravating circumstance that make defendants eligible for the death penalty. Florida and Delaware courts demand more stringent findings.
The differences did not impress Sotomayor in 2013, when she dissented from the high court's refusal to hear a challenge similar to those denied Monday. Alabama's elected judges, she said at the time, "appear to have succumbed to electoral pressures."
The skirmish over Alabama's system is part of the continuing Supreme Court battle over the nation's ultimate penalty - 1 imposed and carried out less often each year, but which voters in California, Nebraska and Oklahoma decided to retain in November.
Does the death penalty serve a purpose? Supreme Court hasn't decided either
The justices are increasingly divided over when it is applied, how it is administered and whether it serves any purpose. Since the turn of the century, they have ended executions for the intellectually disabled, those whose crimes were committed as juveniles, and those who do not commit murder or treason. Last year, Justices Stephen Breyer and Ruth Bader Ginsburg said it was time to decide whether capital punishment itself should be abolished.
Time, however, is not on their side. President Trump soon will nominate the late Justice Antonin Scalia's successor, someone who is virtually certain to support the death penalty. Before his term is over, Trump could get the chance to replace 1 or more of the 5 justices who have limited its scope. 3 of them - Ginsburg, Breyer and Justice Anthony Kennedy - are long past traditional retirement age.
Source: USA Today, January 24, 2017
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