Wrongful Capital Convictions May Be More Likely in Cases of Judicial Override, Non-Unanimous Death Verdicts

New data suggests that states that capital sentencing statutes that permit judges to impose death sentences by overriding jury recommendations for life or after juries have returned non-unanimous recommendations for death may increase the risk of wrongful executions. In an article in the Yale Law Journal Forum, lawyers Patrick Mulvaney and Katherine Chamblee of the Southern Center for Human Rights report that in Alabama, the only state that still permits judges to override a jury's recommendation for life, override cases account for less than a quarter of death sentences but half of death row exonerations. They say that this may be a result of "residual doubt" among jurors, which they describe as “a state of mind that exists somewhere between ‘beyond a reasonable doubt’ and ‘absolute certainty,’” often resulting from weaker or more suspect evidence of guilt. Research has shown that when juror have such doubts, they are substantially more likely to vote for a life, as did jurors in the cases of Alabama death row exonerees Larry Randal Padgett (9-3 jury vote for life) and Daniel Wade Moore (pictured, left, 8-4 vote for life) and current death row prisoner Shonelle Jackson (unanimous jury life recommendation). Non-unanimous jury recommendations for death also appear to pose similar problems. Of Alabama's six death row exonerations, 83% involved either judicial override (3 cases) or non-unanimous jury votes for death (2 cases, including Anthony Ray Hinton, pictured, right). Data from Florida reveals a similar pattern: of the 20 death row exonerations for which information on the jury vote is available, 90% involved a non-unanimous recommendation for death, including three judicial overrides of jury recommendations for life. In 1984, U.S. Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens raised concerns about judicial override and wrongful convictions that are now supported by data: “It may well be that the jury was sufficiently convinced of petitioner’s guilt to convict him, but nevertheless also sufficiently troubled by the possibility that an irrevocable mistake might be made . . . that [it] concluded that a sentence of death could not be morally justified in this case.” Statutes permitting judicial override or non-unanimous jury recommendations for death have been under increased scrutiny since the U.S. Supreme Court's decision in Hurst v. Florida in January 2016. Hurst struck down Florida's sentencing statute saying, "The Sixth Amendment requires a jury, not a judge, to find each fact necessary to impose a sentence of death." Florida's legislature responded by ending judicial override and requiring juries to unanimously find aggravating circumstances in capital cases, though they may still make non-unanimous sentencing recommendations. The Delaware Supreme Court struck down its sentencing statute in light of Hurst in August 2016, leaving Florida and Alabama as the only states that still permit non-unanimous jury receommendations of death.  

The jury votes in the four other Alabama death row exonerations were: Walter McMillian, 7-5 for life; Anthony Ray Hinton, 10-2 for death; and Wesley Quick, 11-1 for death. The other Alabama death row exoneree, Gary Drinkard, waived jury sentencing altogether.

(P. Mulvaney and K. Chamblee, "Innocence and Override," The Yale Law Journal Forum, August 8, 2016; S. Bousquet, "Senate panel OKs death penalty fix; requires unanimous juries," Tampa Bay Times, February 8, 2016; Press Release, Stephen Harper, February 8, 2016.) See Innocence and Sentencing.