Alabama

Alabama

Alabama Stands Alone in Judges Imposing Death When Juries Say Life

Alabama is the only state that in which judges regularly impose death sentences even after a jury recommends a life sentence. Death row inmate Courtney Lockhart has asked the Alabama Supreme Court to reconsider his sentence imposed as a result of this unique process. Lockhart was convicted of capital murder in 2010. The jury unanimously found that his post-traumatic stress disorder, resulting from his military service in Iraq, was sufficiently mitigating to recommend a sentence of life without parole. However, the presiding judge overrode this recommendation and sentenced Lockhart to death. In Alabama, one-fifth of death row inmates were sentenced to death over a jury's recommendation for life. A study by the Equal Justice Initiative found that "the proportion of death sentences imposed by override often is elevated in election years." Some elected judges touted their death penalty records in campaign ads. The practice of judicial override has contributed to Alabama having one of the highest per-capita death sentencing rates in the country. Bryan Stevenson (pictured), executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative, said he hoped that Lockhart's case will allow the Alabama Supreme Court to "reevaluate the propriety of judicial override." Delaware and Florida technically also allow judicial override, but neither state has had a judge use it in over 15 years.

BOOKS: Quest for Justice - Defending the Damned

In his book, "Quest for Justice: Defending the Damned," Richard Jaffe explores the problems of the American death penalty system through his experience as a capital defense attorney in Alabama. During the past twenty years, Jaffe has helped secure the release of three death row inmates: Randall Padgett and Gary Drinkard, who were fully exonerated, and James Cochran, who was cleared of murder charges, but pleaded guilty to a related robbery charge. In his book, Jaffe wrote, "I always keep in mind the maxim that history will judge a society by the way it treats its weakest and most vulnerable. Although most would assume that applies to the poor and the elderly, all one has to do is look at those who end up on death row: an overwhelming number are poor, disenfranchised and suffer from some mental defect or even brain damage." Charles J. Ogletree, Jr., a Harvard Law Professor, said of Quest for Justice, "This book tells the stories of people once convicted and sentenced to death and later acquitted of the same charges. It tells how it happened, shows the criminal courts are fallible and that poor people facing the death penalty may live or die depending on the competence and dedication of the lawyers appointed to defend them."

NEW RESOURCES: Latest "Death Row, USA" Now Available

The latest edition of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund's Death Row, USA shows the total death row population continuing to decline in size. The U.S. death-row population decreased from 3,108 on April 1, 2013, to 3,095 on July 1, 2013. The new total represented a 12% decrease from 10 years earlier, when the death row population was 3,517. The states with the largest death rows were California (733), Florida (412), Texas (292), Pennsylvania (197), and Alabama (197). In the past 10 years, the size of Texas's death row has shrunk 36%; Pennsylvania's death row has declined 18%; on the other hand, California's death row has increased 17% in that time. The report also contains racial breakdowns on death row. The states with the highest percentage of minorities on death row were Delaware (78%) and Texas (71%), among those states with at least 10 inmates. The total death row population was 43% white, 42% black, 13% Latino, and 2% other races.

Supreme Court Returns Case to Alabama Because Attorney Was Ignorant of the Law

On February 24, the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously ordered an Alabama court to reconsider the case of Anthony Hinton, who has maintained his innocence since he was sentenced to death 28 years ago. Mr. Hinton's lawyer wrongly believed that he could spend only $1,000 on a firearms expert during the trial, and as a result, hired a witness whom he knew was unqualified, and who the Court said was "badly discredited" by the prosecution. Hinton's appellate lawyers later claimed that his trial lawyer's mistake constituted ineffective assistance of counsel. During Hinton's appeals, three experts testified that they could not conclude Hinton's gun had fired the bullets used in the crime, essentially rebutting the prosecutor's primary evidence. Bryan Stevenson of the Equal Justice Initiative in Alabama, who has represented Hinton since 1999, said, "There’s dramatic evidence that he’s been wrongly convicted and no one can credibly assert that a capital defendant can get the assistance he needs for $1000." The Court returned the case to Alabama's courts to determine whether the trial's lawyer error preudiced the outcome of the case.

EDITORIAL: "Proposal to Speed Up Death Penalty Appeals Troubling"

A recent editorial in the Montgomery Advertiser criticized a proposal by Alabama Attorney General Luther Strange to speed up death penalty appeals. His proposed legislation would require two parts of the appeal process to essentially run concurrently. The editorial cautioned that lack of adequate representation for death penalty defendants would make the accelerated process more problematic. The paper concluded, “Anything that smacks of haste in capital punishment cases is inherently troubling. This is a difficult issue for the Legislature to tackle, especially in an election year, when emotion and political expediency can form a dangerous combination. If there was ever a time for sober, somber, serious debate of an issue, with an unblinking recognition of what is really at stake, surely this is it.”  Read the editorial below.

Alabama Pardons Scottsboro Boys--Former Death Row Inmates

On November 21, the Alabama Board of Pardons and Paroles unanimously voted to posthumously pardon Charles Weems, Andy Wright, and Haywood Patterson, three of the nine "Scottsboro Boys," a group of black teenagers who were charged in 1931 of raping two white women. Eight of the nine defendants, including the three who were recently pardoned, were originally sentenced to death. The racial injustice of the case sparked protests and two U.S. Supreme Court decisions, one because the defendants did not receive adequate counsel and the other because no blacks were allowed to serve as jurors during the trials. The three who were recently exonerated were the last of the group who had not already been pardoned or had charges against them dropped. Legislation passed in Alabama earlier this year allowed the Board to grant posthumous pardons in cases involving racial or social injustice. The pardon and parole board's assistant executive director, Eddie Cook, said, "Today, we were able to undo a black eye that has been held over Alabama for many years." Alabama Gov. Robert J. Bentley said, “The Scottsboro Boys have finally received justice.”

Sotomayor Critiques Alabama Sentencing in Supreme Court Dissent

The U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear an appeal from Alabama death row inmate Mario Woodward, who was sentenced to death in 2008 despite a jury's 8-4 recommendation for a life sentence. Alabama is one of only three states that allow a judge to override a jury's sentencing recommendation for life to impose a death sentence; Florida and Delaware also allow the practice, but death sentences by judicial override are very rare in those states. Justice Sonia Sotomayor voted to hear the case, saying the Court should reconsider Alabama's death sentencing procedure. In an opinion joined in part by Justice Stephen Breyer, Sotomayor said 26 of the 27 cases since 2000 in which judges imposed death sentences over a jury's recommendation for life came from Alabama, including some in which the vote for life was unanimous. She speculated that Alabama's elected judges may face political pressures to appear harsh in their use of the death penalty that unelected judges in other states do not face. “What could explain Alabama judges' distinctive proclivity for imposing death sentences in cases where a jury has already rejected that penalty?," she wrote. "The only answer that is supported by empirical evidence is one that, in my view, casts a cloud of illegitimacy over the criminal justice system: Alabama judges, who are elected in partisan proceedings, appear to have succumbed to electoral pressures." She cited instances in which judges used their death sentences as part of their electoral campaigns.

UPCOMING EXECUTION: Mentally Ill Inmate Asks for Execution in Alabama

Andrew Lackey is scheduled for execution in Alabama on July 25, despite suffering from mental illness his entire life. Lackey asked for an execution date, even though neither his state nor federal appeals have been completed. Despite extensive evidence of serious mental problems, the trial judge refused to order an expert competency evaluation, failed to inquire about medications he is taking and how they affect his mental state, and did not ask state officials about their diagnosis of Lackey’s mental condition. After a failed suicide attempt, Lackey asked the state to carry out his execution. Attorneys at the Equal Justice Initiative, who had represented Andrew Lackey, recently argued that the judge should not have permitted him to waive his appeals until his mental competency was properly evaluated.

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