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Alabama death penalty cases may soon rest solely with jury

MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) — Alabama could be close to ending its one-of-a-kind practice of allowing judges to hand down death sentences despite a jury’s recommendation for life in prison.

The state Senate approved a bill Thursday that would end the state’s status as the only one in the U.S. that allows a judge to override a jury when sentencing capital murder cases.

The U.S. Supreme Court last month refused to hear inmate challenges to Alabama’s override provision, but critics say it interjects politics into death penalty cases.

“We may have been somehow threading the needle of the constitutionality of this, but at the end of the day it is morally wrong to allow this practice to continue in our state,” Sen. Cam Ward, the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said during the debate.

Senators approved the bill 30-1. It now moves to the House of Representatives, where a similar bill has cleared committee but faces an uncertain future on the floor.

Since 1976, Alabama judges have overridden jury recommendations 112 times, according to the Montgomery-based Equal Justice Initiative. In 101 of those cases, the judges gave a death sentence. The bill would also prevent judges from giving a life sentence if a jury recommended a death sentence.

The legislation would only affect future death sentences, not inmates currently on Alabama’s death row.

A rare bipartisan coalition emerged in the GOP-controlled Legislature to push for an end to the practice. The sponsor of the Senate bill is a Republican, while the sponsor of the House bill is a Democrat.

Bill sponsor Sen. Dick Brewbaker said judicial override taints the court system because judges face election year pressure to impose death sentences.

“You are entitled to a trial by a jury of your peers and that ought to apply to sentencing too,” Brewbaker said. “I did not have a single judge, not one, talk to me formally or informally and say we need to keep judicial override. They were very frank that people use it to pressure them in election years.”

The U.S. Supreme Court struck down a similar law in Florida. However, the Alabama attorney general’s office has argued that unlike Florida, Alabama juries determine there are aggravating factors that can merit a death sentence when they convict someone of a capital crime.

Sen. Trip Pittman, who voted against the bill, said he believes judges have information to make an accurate decision.

“I believe in all cases the judges were choosing that sentence because it was the right sentence,” he said.

The last inmate executed in Alabama was given a death sentence even though a jury recommended life in prison without parole.

Bryan Stevenson, the executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative, said there were more judges and prosecutors in the state who support the legislation than most people would guess.

“We can avoid a world of litigation and constitutional uncertainty if this bill becomes law,” Stevenson said.

Brewbaker’s bill would not require jurors to unanimously vote for death. They could issue a death sentence with the agreement of 10 of 12 jurors. The House bill would require unanimous agreement of jurors for a death sentence.

House members are scheduled to debate the bill next week.

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