Recent Alabama execution underscores ongoing need for death penalty reform

This year already has seen a number of Alabama Arise priorities in the news, and death penalty reform is no exception. Unfortunately, Alabama recently became the first state to perform an execution using the unsafe and untested method known as nitrogen hypoxia. The state executed Kenneth Smith using this method on Jan. 25, despite concerns from many Alabamians and even the United Nations.

Smith’s execution could not have legally occurred if he had been sentenced today. After finding him guilty, the jury voted 11-1 for Smith to be sentenced to life imprisonment. However, the sentencing judge overruled the jury’s wishes and imposed the death penalty, a practice known as judicial override. Lawmakers banned this practice in 2017, but the ban wasn’t made retroactive. That means more than 30 people are still on Alabama’s death row against the wishes of a jury.

Arise and other death penalty reform advocates supported more than 150 faith leaders as they petitioned the governor to halt Smith’s execution and called for increasing transparency around the use of nitrogen hypoxia as an execution method. Similarly, we supported advocates, community members and former death row inmates who gathered at the steps of the State Capitol to protest the execution and the state’s new method.

This execution and the advocacy of Alabamians demonstrates, more than ever, our state’s need for death penalty reform. We must make the judicial override ban retroactive to address the injustice experienced by dozens of people who were sentenced to death by a judge, rather than a jury of their peers. Similarly, Alabama is one of only two states that doesn’t require a unanimous jury vote to sentence someone to death. In our state, only 10 of 12 jurors must agree to impose a death sentence.