A victory for justice: Legislature votes to end judicial override in Alabama

UPDATE: Gov. Kay Ivey signed SB 16 into law on April 11, 2017, ending judicial override in all future capital cases in Alabama.

The age of judicial override in the United States is about to come to an end. The Alabama House voted 78-19 Tuesday to end the practice, which allows judges to override juries’ sentencing recommendations in death penalty cases. Alabama is the last state in the country to allow judicial override in capital cases.

SB 16, sponsored by Sen. Dick Brewbaker, R-Pike Road, now goes to Gov. Robert Bentley for his consideration. Bentley is “looking forward to signing this bill,” he said in a statement. The state Senate already passed the bill 30-1 in February.

“Judicial override is about to become a thing of the past, and Alabama’s justice system will be better as a result,” Arise executive director Kimble Forrister said. “It’s time for our state to put the sentencing decisions in death penalty cases where they belong: in the jury’s hands. We’re happy to see such strong support in the House and Senate for ending this outdated practice, and we hope the governor will sign it into law quickly.”

Judicial override regularly has been used to impose death sentences in Alabama despite a jury’s sentencing recommendation of life in prison without the possibility of parole. Alabama judges used judicial override 112 times between 1978 and early 2016, according to the Equal Justice Initiative. In 101 (or 90.2 percent) of those instances, override was used to impose a death sentence despite a jury’s recommendation of life without parole. (Read Arise’s fact sheet to learn more about judicial override.)

Judicial override ban does not apply retroactively

Rep. Chris England, D-Tuscaloosa, the House sponsor of legislation to end judicial override, said the decision of whether to sentence someone convicted of a capital crime to death was a weighty moral question that should be entrusted to a jury of one’s peers rather than a judge. “A law degree does not make you more qualified to decide whether to sentence someone to life or death,” England said.

The House vote came after England agreed to amendments that made his judicial override bill (HB 32) match Brewbaker’s version. England then substituted SB 16 for his own bill, allowing the House to vote on the measure and send it directly to Bentley.

SB 16 explicitly states that it would not apply retroactively to defendants sentenced to death before the bill’s passage. It also would preserve current Alabama law allowing juries to recommend death if 10 of 12 jurors agree. England’s original bill would have required a unanimous jury vote to impose the death penalty, but he accepted the changes to win support for ending judicial override.