ACLU Report Finds Flaws in Alabama's Death Penalty

According to a new report released by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), structural and procedural flaws in Alabama’s criminal justice system stack the deck against fair trials and appropriate sentencing for those facing the death penalty. The report, Broken Justice: The Death Penalty in Alabama, details unfair and discriminatory practices in the state’s administration of the death penalty. It concentrates on six major areas of concern: inadequate defense, prosecutorial misconduct, judicial override of jury recommendations, execution of the mentally retarded, racial discrimination and geographic disparities. Among the report's key findings are the following:

  • Lack of a statewide public defender system in Alabama creates wide disparities among circuits in their standards of indigent defense, or representation of defendants who can’t afford private legal counsel.
  • Alabama is among the few states that still allow judges in capital trials to override jury recommendations for lesser sentences and impose the death penalty.
  • Eighty-one percent of those executed in Alabama since 1976 were convicted of killing white people, yet only 35 percent of all murders in the state involve white victims.
  • Between 1973 and 2003, nineteen Alabama death penalty cases were reversed because of prosecutorial misconduct.
  • The 2002 U.S. Supreme Court decision prohibiting execution of mentally retarded offenders left it to the states to define mental retardation. In failing to issue its own definition, Alabama places mentally retarded inmates at risk of unconstitutional execution.

Based on its findings, the ACLU has recommended at temporary halt to executions in Alabama to allow a thorough review of the state's capital punishment system. A July 2005 poll by the Capital Survey Research Center found that 57 percent of Alabamians would support such a moratorium on executions.

Alabama has the sixth -highest execution rate and the sixth-highest death-sentencing rate in the nation. There is no statewide public defender system, and 95 percent of those on death row are unable to afford representation. Five innocent people have been released from Alabama's death row since 1976.

(ACLU Press Release, "New Report Finds Fatal Flaws in Alabama's Death Penalty," October 20, 2005). Read the report. See Representation, Race, Prosecutorial MisconductArbitrariness, and Innocence.