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Judges Ignore Juries to Impose Death

Law: Judicial override in capital trials comes under increased scrutiny. Arizona case is expected to draw a ruling from the U.S. Supreme Court.

June 16, 2002|HENRY WEINSTEIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

MONTGOMERY, Ala. -- After finding Shonelle Jackson guilty of murdering a man while stealing his car stereo, jurors recommended unanimously that the 19-year-old's life be spared.

However, trial Judge William Gordon overruled the 12-member panel. Instead of placing Jackson in prison for life without possibility of parole, Gordon ordered him to the electric chair.

Jackson is one of 83 people who have been sent to death row in Alabama in the last two decades as a result of a judicial override--a procedure that is becoming increasingly controversial in the state and around the nation.

Alabama is one of just four states that has permitted judges to ignore jury recommendations to impose death.

Judges in five other states have the sole power to make capital punishment decisions.

Later this month, the U.S. Supreme Court is expected to rule on a case challenging the procedure in one of the latter states, Arizona, on the grounds that it amounts to a violation of the 6th Amendment right to be tried by a jury of peers.

If Arizona's law is toppled, legal experts say it could have an impact on the Alabama statute under the same reasoning since both laws, in essence, give judges the ultimate power to impose death.

Alabama Atty. Gen. Bill Pryor says the state's law is fair because judges, having viewed capital cases in the past, have some "sense of proportionality."

Critics counter that judges should not be given unbridled authority to ignore jurors' recommendations.

Such a practice "reduces to a sham the role of the jury in sentencing and allows baseless, disparate sentencing of defendants in capital cases," Alabama Supreme Court Justice Douglas Johnstone wrote in May in a dissent in the Jackson case.

Alabama sentences more people to death per capita than any other state, and "judicial override is the single most significant factor" why, said Bryan Stevenson, executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative of Alabama. He is Jackson's appellate lawyer and plans additional appeals.

Five of the 24 people executed in Alabama since capital punishment was reinstated here in 1976 were sentenced to death by judges after juries had recommended life sentences.

The state judge who has imposed the most overrides went so far as to advertise his record on death penalty cases during his 2000 reelection campaign.

In American courts, sentencing for virtually all crimes is the sole prerogative of a judge. But historically, the death penalty has been different. In 1968, the U.S. Supreme Court said that jurors should bear the responsibility "to express the conscience of the community on the ultimate question of life or death."

But seven years ago, in Harris vs. Alabama, the Supreme Court upheld the Alabama override law 8 to 1, saying it did not violate the Constitution's prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment.

That did not stop debate over the issue.

In recent years, two men who were sent to Alabama's death row as a result of overrides have had their convictions overturned.

Walter McMilian and Randall Padgett, now free men, often speak publicly against the death penalty.

Alabama also has been criticized more broadly by American Bar Assn. officials for providing insufficient funding for lawyers who represent indigent defendants in capital trials.

And Alabama officials are under attack in a federal lawsuit that contends that the state is violating the Constitution because it does not guarantee legal help to inmates in the final phase of death penalty appeals.

Alabama law permits trial judges to override jury recommendations and impose death, regardless of whether a jury recommends life by a 7-5 majority or a higher margin. A number of defendants, such as Jackson, have been sent to death row even though nine or more jurors recommended life.

To render a death sentence, an Alabama judge must find that aggravating factors, such as the nature of the crime or a defendant's criminal history, outweigh such mitigating factors as a defendant's age or lack of a record.

The judge is required to "consider" the jury's "advisory [sentencing] verdict," but the Alabama statute does not say how much weight it must be given.

The lack of a standard does not invalidate the law, Justice Sandra Day O'Connor wrote in the Harris decision. She said the high court should not engage in "micromanagement" of tasks properly in the state's discretion.

Justice John Paul Stevens issued a strong dissent, saying that "total reliance on judges to pronounce sentences of death is constitutionally unacceptable," in part because it gives prosecutors two chances to win a death sentence.

Some Alabama jurors who have voted for life sentences have expressed frustration and surprise that their recommendation seemed meaningless.

"I was very shocked to know that the judge had changed our decision," said Allene Evans, one of nine jurors who recommended life for Herbert Williams Jr., after finding him guilty of murdering a Mobile businessman. "We were supposed to make the decision."

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