Momentum to end judicial override in Alabama grows as bills clear committees in House, Senate

The movement to end judicial override in Alabama has won two big victories in the first two weeks of the Legislature’s 2017 regular session. The House Judiciary Committee voted 10-2 Wednesday to approve a bill to end Alabama’s practice of allowing judges to override juries’ sentencing recommendations in death penalty cases. The Senate Judiciary Committee voted 5-3 last week to advance a similar bill.

The bills – HB 32, sponsored by Rep. Chris England, D-Tuscaloosa, and SB 16, sponsored by Sen. Dick Brewbaker, R-Pike Road – now await consideration by the full House and Senate.

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. 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.

Bills differ on whether to require unanimity

The House and Senate bills are largely identical, with one major exception: England’s bill also would require a unanimous jury vote to impose the death penalty. Current Alabama law allows juries to recommend death if 10 of 12 jurors agree. House committee members Wednesday rejected an attempt to remove that provision from England’s bill.

Arise policy analyst Stephen Stetson testified last week in favor of ending judicial override and requiring unanimity for juries to impose a death sentence. “Members of a jury can reach the best result,” Stetson told senators.