"With Judges Overriding Death Penalty Cases, Alabama Is An Outlier," is the NPR report by Rebecca Buckwalter-Poza.
When Courtney Lockhart was tried for murder in Alabama, the jury unanimously recommended a life sentence, but the judge overrode that recommendation and sentenced Lockhart to death instead. Now the convicted murderer is asking the state Supreme Court to examine Alabama's unique process of judicial override.
Alabama is an outlier. It's the only state in which judges routinely override jury decisions not to impose the death penalty.
Lockhart appealed his sentence to the state's Court of Criminal Appeals and lost. This May, Lockhart's lawyers appealed to the state Supreme Court in hopes that it would "reevaluate the propriety of judicial override," according to Bryan Stevenson, executive director of the anti-death penalty group Equal Justice Initiative. The court could take up the case any time in the next several months.
The U.S. Supreme Court, beginning in 2000, has said that juries must decide all key questions affecting a defendant's sentence. And the court has specifically applied that concept to death cases.
The result is that in practice, judicial overrides have all but faded away. Today only Alabama judges still override jury recommendations of life in prison and sentence defendants to death instead. In two other states — Florida and Delaware — laws on the books technically still permit judges to adjust jury-recommended sentences. But both states have enacted restrictions that amount to abolishing judicial overrides in practice. None of Delaware's death row inmates was sentenced by an override, and there have been no such judicial overrides in Florida in the last 15 years.
In contrast, the practice of judicial override in Alabama is so widespread that it accounts for one-fifth of death row prisoners.
Earlier coverage of judicial override in Alabama begins at the link.