End of judicial override draws closer as Alabama House committee approves Senate bill

The era of judicial override in Alabama death penalty cases came one step closer to an end Wednesday, when the House Judiciary Committee approved a bill that would end the unusual practice. SB 16, sponsored by Sen. Dick Brewbaker, R-Pike Road, now awaits consideration by the full House. The Senate passed the bill 30-1 last month.

Wednesday’s vote was the second time that the House committee approved a measure to end Alabama’s practice of allowing judges to override juries’ sentencing recommendations in death penalty cases. The committee voted 10-2 last month to approve a similar House bill: HB 32, sponsored by Rep. Chris England, D-Tuscaloosa.

Alabama is the only state in the country that allows judicial override in capital cases. The practice regularly is used to impose death sentences despite a jury’s sentencing recommendation of life in prison without the possibility of parole. (Read Arise’s fact sheet to learn more about judicial override.)

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.

The House and Senate bills are largely identical, with two major exceptions. Brewbaker’s bill 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 bill would require a unanimous jury vote to impose the death penalty.

England said Wednesday that he is willing to accept the changes in the Senate version. His ultimate goal with the legislation, he said, is to end judicial override.