Alabama Senator Hank Sanders, who has put forth legislation to end the death penalty in Alabama for the last decade, has introduced a bill that would ban judges from over-riding a jury's decision for life without the possibility of parole and imposing the death penalty.
Alabama is one of only three states that allows judges to override cases such as this, and it is the only one that allows it without any guidelines or even an explanation from the judge. In fact, roughly 25% of inmates on Alabama's death row are there because of judicial overrides of LWOP jury recommendations. Florida, for example, has explicit guidelines for a judicial override to take place.
One-half of the 204 inmates on Alabama's death row had lawyers whose fees were capped at $1,000. Alabama is the only state that has no state-funded public defender system for indigent inmates, although several counties in the state do have procedures for same. Most of the assigned lawyers do not meet the inmate until shortly before the trial, and most do not do a thorough investigation or mount a thorough or effective defense. Since the only requirement for being a public defender is a law degree and five years of experience in practice, many appointed defenders have little or no experience in capital cases, and these cases are among the most complicated ones to defend.
In addition, Alabama does not guarantee an inmate's right to DNA testing. In fact some cases that DNA testing could have liberated the accused were not allowed by the judge. In another case, once the judicial machinations reached the point that the court ruled in favor of the inmate's request, prosecutors said the evidence was lost. The state executed man anyway. It has been said that "State prosecutors have never seen a death sentence that they did not like."
Alabama continues to be among the worst in the country for racism and bias in arrests for suspicion of homicide, jury selection excluding blacks, prosecutors pursuing the death penalty for blacks killing whites, and for juveniles serving life without parole for murders while in their teens and as young as 13-14 years-old. The majority of these juveniles are black.
In Alabama, 65% of murder victims are black, but only 6% of the executions are for black victims. Eighty-four per cent of executions in Alabama are for cases involving black on white homicides (about the same as it was when rape was considered a capital crime). Although that percentage has dropped in recent years, it is my opinion that it has done so to equilibrate the statistics after years of exposure of this atrocity by such groups as Project Hope to Abolish the Death Penalty.
Althought the legislature has been lobbied on behalf of a moratorium on the death penalty and a "blue-ribbon" panel of experts in the field to study the state's death penalty process, these efforts fall on deaf ears. None of our politicians, even those convinced of the inequities, have had the courage to speak out for the truth for fear of losing the next election. While perhaps some can be excused because of ignorance, it more likely is because no one in Alabama can get elected if they appear "soft on crime." Even our politically elected judges campaign in strong support of the death penalty, and they do so with large coffers of cash from political donors such as lawyers and other special interest groups.
These are just a few of the reasons Alabama has been described as one of the worst death penalty states in the nation by the American Bar Association. The state's politicians refuse to even read the report, and those made aware of the study refuse to recognize or acknowledge the facts contained therein.
The facts included in this message are many or the reasons that passage of the Hank Sander's Bill to ban judicial overrides by judges would be a step forward toward real justice in Alabama.
Robert L. Baldwin