U.S. Supreme Court Orders Alabama to Reconsider Constitutionality of Its Death Penalty Sentencing Procedure

The U.S. Supreme Court has vacated a decision of the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals upholding a death sentence imposed on Alabama death row prisoner Bart Johnson, and has directed the state court to reconsider the constitutionality of Alabama's death-sentencing procedures. Johnson, represented by lawyers from the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI), had challenged the constitutionality of his death sentence, which was imposed by a trial judge after a nonunanimous jury vote of 10-2 recommending a death sentence, as violating the Supreme Court's decision earlier this year in Hurst v. Florida. According to Johnson's Supreme Court pleadings, the trial court had instructed the jury that it did not need to unanimously agree to any particular fact that would have made Johnson eligible for the death penalty, nor did it have to identify for the court any specific aggravating factors that it found to be present in the case. Hurst ruled that Florida's capital sentencing procedures, which permitted critical factual findings necessary to impose a death sentence to be made by the trial judge, rather than the jury, violated the Sixth Amendment right to a jury trial. Johnson's lawyers argued that Alabama's sentencing scheme suffers from the same constitutional defect and that, "[i]n Bart Johnson's case, like in Hurst, the judge imposed the death penalty based on finding two aggravating factors that were not clearly found by the jury." Bryan Stevenson, EJI's executive director, said that the Court's ruling could have systemic implications: "This ruling implicates all [capital] cases in Alabama. We have argued that Alabama's statute no longer conforms to current constitutional requirements. The Court's ruling today supports that view." In March, an Alabama Circuit Judge barred the death penalty in four cases on the grounds that Alabama's sentencing scheme was unconstitutional. The Supreme Court's decision to order reconsideration of Johnson's case could also affect a court challenge currently pending in the Delaware Supreme Court over the constitutionality of its death penalty statute, which employs similar sentencing procedures. Likewise, defense lawyers in Nebraska have argued that the death penalty statute in that state — which has been repealed by the legislature pending the outcome of a ballot initiative in November — impermissibly vests key fact-finding authority in the trial judge, rather than the jury. 

(K. Faulk, "U.S. Supreme Court vacates judgment in case of man who killed Pelham police officer," AL.com, May 2, 2016; C. Geidner, "Supreme Court Calls For Alabama Courts To Review State’s Death Sentencing Process," BuzzFeed, May 2, 2016;  Equal Justice Initiative, "U.S. Supreme Court Rules Alabama Death Penalty Must Be Re-Examined Based on New Law," May 2, 2016; P. Hammel and J. Duggan, "Supreme Court says Florida’s system of deciding death sentences, a process similar to Nebraska’s, is unconstitutional," Omaha World-Herald, January 20, 2016.) Read Bart Johnson's Supreme Court Petition for Rehearing here. See Sentencing and U.S. Supreme Court.