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U.S. Supreme Court

Are some Ala. judges swayed by electoral pressures in capital cases? Apparently so, Sotomayor says

Posted Nov 18, 2013 11:19 AM CDT
By Debra Cassens Weiss

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Justice Sonia Sotomayor today disagreed with the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to deny cert in the case of an Alabama defendant who was sentenced to death by a judge despite a jury’s contrary recommendation.

Judges in Alabama override jury recommendations to impose the death penalty at the rate of about twice a year, Sotomayor wrote in her dissent (PDF) to the cert denial. It is one of three states (the others are Delaware and Florida) that allow judges to override sentencing decisions by juries, but in practice only Alabama uses the override to impose death. Since 2000, 26 of 27 judicial overrides of life sentences were in Alabama; the other death sentence by judicial override in Delaware was overturned by the state supreme court.

“Today, Alabama stands alone,” Sotomayor wrote. “No other state condemns prisoners to death despite the considered judgment rendered by a cross-section of its citizens that the defendant ought to live.” The U.S. Supreme Court upheld Alabama’s judicial-override sentencing statute in 1995.

Sotomayor said Alabama’s system deserves “a fresh look” given precedent on the jury’s role in the criminal justice system. “I harbor deep concerns about whether [Alabama’s] practice offends the Sixth and Eighth Amendments,” she wrote.

“What could explain Alabama judges’ distinctive proclivity for imposing death sentences in cases where a jury has already rejected that penalty?” Sotomayor wrote. “There is no evidence that criminal activity is more heinous in Alabama than in other states, or that Alabama juries are particularly lenient in weighing aggravating and mitigating circumstances. The only answer that is supported by empirical evidence is one that, in my view, casts a cloud of illegitimacy over the criminal justice system: Alabama judges, who are elected in partisan proceedings, appear to have succumbed to electoral pressures.”

Justice Stephen G. Breyer joined the first two sections of Sotomayor’s dissent, including the section questioning the impact of elections on judicial decisions. He did not join the section of her opinion on developments in Sixth Amendment precedent.

The defendant in the case, Mario Dion Woodward, was convicted of fatally shooting a Montgomery police officer. Jurors weighing aggravating and mitigating factors had voted 8-4 against the death penalty. The judge overrode the jurors after hearing new evidence.

The case is Woodward v. Alabama. Hat tip to SCOTUSblog.

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