"Alabama capital murder cases rekindle debate over ‘judge override’," is the title of Jim Mustian's report in the Columbus Ledger-Enquirer of Georgia.
The 2008 murder of Auburn University freshman Lauren A. Burk horrified Lee County and the surrounding community. But last fall, 12 jurors recommended life in prison for Courtney Lockhart, the man convicted of abducting Burk and forcing her to disrobe before fatally shooting her.
Despite the jury’s consensus, Circuit Court Judge Jacob A. Walker III overruled the recommendation and sentenced Lockhart to die by lethal injection. The judge attributed his decision to a series of robberies involving Lockhart, saying jurors likely would have been swayed toward capital punishment if they had considered those alleged crimes.
Walker now is tasked with a similar choice in another high-profile case in which jurors rejected a death sentence for Gregory Lance Henderson, the Columbus man convicted Tuesday of running over and killing a deputy sheriff. The Lee County cases have drawn attention to a controversial statute that allows Alabama’s elected judges to make life-or-death decisions entrusted to jurors in other states.
Walker’s decision in the Lockhart case this March drew criticism from death penalty opponents and advocates for eliminating the option of “judge override.”
“When a jury of your peers decides after saying you’re guilty of capital murder that you shouldn’t be sentenced to death, there’s a reason for that,” said Randy Susskind, an attorney with the Equal Justice Initiative, a Montgomery, Ala., nonprofit that opposes executions and represents indigent defenders. “Override is just too susceptible to abuse and arbitrariness.”
Alabama’s capital punishment statute is unique. Florida and Delaware also allow override in capital cases, but both states require a more stringent standard to justify intervention from the bench.
Earlier coverage of Alabama's Judicial override controversy begins at the link.
The EJI report, The Death Penalty in Alabama: Judge Override, is available in Adobe .pdf format.