Judge in Jefferson County Rules Alabama’s Death Penalty Statute Unconstitutional
In January, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Hurst v. Florida that Florida’s death penalty statute was unconstitutional. Alabama and Delaware are the only other states with similar statutes that require a judge – not a jury – to make the final decision about life or death in a capital case. It’s called judicial override. Attorney General Luther Strange has held that the Supreme Court ruling does not apply to Alabama. But Thursday one judge trying a murder case in Jefferson County disagreed. She ruled that Alabama’s capital murder sentencing scheme is unconstitutional, just like Florida’s. WBHM’s Ashley Cleek spoke with Judge Tracie Todd about her ruling.
Why She Made the Decision
“The problem with Alabama’s sentencing scheme is that it takes the decision from the jury and gives it to the judge,” says Todd. “Although the jury makes the recommendation as to life or death, the judge is the final decider. In Alabama, it is very arbitrary to apply the capital sentencing scheme in one way in one case, and in another way in another case,” Todd adds. “That occurs when you have different judges making a decision based on information that may or may not have been considered by a jury of one’s peers.”
What Does it Mean for Her Current Case?
Todd is presiding over the case of four men charged for three murders. Todd says the death penalty is now off the table.
“The state will not be able to seek the death penalty. I am sure the state, if it decides to, will challenge my ruling,” says Todd. “It will go up to the appellate courts, and it will go from there. If they affirm my ruling, then the death penalty statute of Alabama is unconstitutional. If they reverse my ruling, then someone will probably take it up to the U.S. Supreme Court, and we’ll see what happens.”
On “Legislating from the Bench” Claims
Todd says she doesn’t see Thursdays decision as legislating from the bench.
“I didn’t change a law. I just ruled that the [U.S.] Constitution and the ruling in Hurst applies to Alabama,” Todd says. “For me to legislate from the bench, that means that I would take the law as it is written and do something else, and that’s not what I am doing.”
“Whether you have a personal bias or you’re a proponent for the death penalty is not at issue here, in my opinion,” comments Todd, who points out she has imposed the death penalty in the past.
“It doesn’t matter whether I believe it personally should exist morally or legally, it exists. It is a part of our law, that is not the question,” Todd says. “As far as it being about override…death, which is a final judgment, final in the fact that life is gone, should be left with the jury, per the Sixth Amendment,” says Todd. “To take a portion of that (decision) from he jury and give it to a judge who hears information that was never presented to the jury, that can make a decision on new information, and who may have an incentive to impose the death penalty because of pressures from the community, is unconstitutional.