Alabama’s Death Penalty System Faces New Scrutiny

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Alabama executed a death row inmate Thursday evening for the first time in more than two years. Christopher Brooks died by lethal injection for the 1992 rape and murder of a Homewood woman. But Alabama’s death penalty system is facing new scrutiny after a U.S. Supreme Court decision this month overturning Florida’s process.

Florida, Alabama and Delaware are the only states that use what’s called “judicial override.”

Here’s how it works.

If a jury convicts a person of a capital offense, the jury then recommends a sentence of life without parole or death. A judge can decide to follow that recommendation or override it. But the key is the judge makes the decision.

Ashley Cleek reported on Alabama’s judicial override system for the podcast Life of the Law. She cites numbers from the non-profit law firm Equal Justice Initiative that show Alabama judges have imposed the death penalty against the recommendation of juries at least 101 times since 1981. About 40 current Alabama death row inmates received sentences this way.

Cleek spoke to a handful of jurors involved in capital murder trials. Some were fine letting the judge make the decision, figuring he or she had more expertise. But not all jurors saw it that way.

“They were pretty upset about it,” Cleek says. “They really felt that their time had been wasted and they didn’t really understand the point of them being there.”

The U.S. Supreme Court ruling in the Florida case determined that jurors do play a critical role, that a “mere recommendation is not enough” for the death penalty, and so Florida’s system is unconstitutional.

“I think every judge that has a capital case in front of her or him right now is focused on this,” says Samford University law professor LaJuana Davis.

She says the ruling’s effect should be felt in Alabama since the state’s statute is very similar to Florida’s. The big question is if the decision applies retroactively. In other words, does it apply to inmates already on death row? At a minimum, Davis thinks it will prompt challenges from Alabama.

“I suspect that everyone who has been sentenced to death here will be filing something,” says Davis.

In a statement, Alabama Attorney General Luther Strange says the Supreme Court ruling doesn’t affect the state. He says the court upheld Alabama’s system in 1995 and declined to hear a challenge last year.