The right to a trial by jury is one of the most sacred elements of the American criminal justice system. The basic principle of being judged by a jury of peers is a cornerstone of a nation built on a populist spirit and suspicion of elites. But in Alabama, members of a jury in a capital murder trial are not empowered to set the sentence. Rather, a single judge, and not the jury, makes the ultimate decision about whether the defendant should be executed. More than 100 people have been sentenced to death in Alabama since 1978 despite a jury’s sentencing recommendation of life without parole.
Alabama is the last state in the country to allow these “judicial overrides.” Two bills in the Alabama Legislature’s 2017 regular session – HB 32, sponsored by Rep. Chris England, D-Tuscaloosa, and SB 16, sponsored by Sen. Dick Brewbaker, R-Pike Road – would end judicial overrides and respect the jury’s decision in weighty matters of life or death.
This fact sheet examines the history and shortcomings of judicial overrides and explains why it makes sense both morally and financially for Alabama to abolish this unusual practice.