America Is Stuck With the Death Penalty for (At Least) a Generation

With Justice Anthony Kennedy's retirement, the national fight to abolish capital punishment will have to go local.
When the Supreme Court revived capital punishment in 1976, just four years after de facto abolishing it, the justices effectively took ownership of the American death penalty and all its outcomes. They have spent the decades since then setting its legal and constitutional parameters, supervising its general implementation, sanctioning its use in specific cases, and brushing aside concerns about its many flaws.
That unusual role in the American legal system is about to change. With Justice Anthony Kennedy’s retirement from the court this summer, the Supreme Court will lose a heterodox jurist whose willingness to cross ideological divides made him the deciding factor in many legal battles. In cases involving the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment, his judgment often meant the difference between life and death for hundreds of death-row pr…

33 on Alabama's death row would no longer face execution under proposed bill

Alabama's death row
Alabama's death row
An Alabama senator wants to expand the recently enacted law that halted the practice of allowing judges to impose death on convicted capital murder defendants despite a jury's recommendation of life without the possibility of parole.

State Sen. Hank Sanders, D-Selma, introduced a bill that would make the new law retroactive, effectively taking more than 30 inmates off death row who were sentenced to die by a judge's override of a jury recommendation for life without parole.

"The Alabama Legislature has admitted that this unfair and unjust and we're not going to do it anymore in Alabama," Sanders said.

But the legislature should extend that same justice to those already on death row due to judicial overrides, Sanders said.

There are currently 179 men and five women who are on Alabama's death row, according to the Alabama Department of Corrections.

As of December, according to the federal public defender's office in Montgomery, the number of death row inmates sentenced to die by a judge overriding a verdict was 34. But one of those inmates - Ronald Smith - who had their jury recommendation overridden by a judge and sentenced to death was executed after that number was released.

Alabama had been the last state to allow judicial override - Florida and Delaware stopped last year in the wake of court orders. The Alabama Legislature enacted a law this session that did away with the practice.

But during debate over the bill Sen. Trip Pittman, R-Montrose, introduced an amendment that stated the act would not apply retroactively to inmates sentenced prior to enactment of the bill. The amendment was approved.

Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey on her first full day in office on April 11 signed into law the bill that says juries, not judges, have the final say on whether to impose the death penalty in capital murder cases.

Sanders introduced his bill on April 20, less than three weeks after the legislature had approved the bill doing away with judicial override. The bill has not made it out of the senate's judiciary committee.

With less than 10 days left in the legislative session, it doesn't look like Sanders' bill has a chance to make it to a vote this session. Sanders also has bills that he submitted at the start of this year's session in February regarding the death penalty. One seeks to repeal the death penalty and another seeks a three-year moratorium on it. Both those bills also appear dead in the committee.

Sanders, an opponent of the death penalty, has submitted the bills in prior years.

Judicial override was initially designed to prevent runaway juries and an extra level of procedural safeguards to prevent the unjustified imposition of the death penalty, said Robert Dunham, executive director of the Death Penalty Information.

But instead, in Alabama it has historically been used to impose death sentences against the will of the community and has been disproportionately used in election years in cases of white victims and African American defendants, he said.

Source: al.com, Kent Faulk, May 1, 2017

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