MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) — The decision whether to sentence a defendant to death in Alabama could soon rest firmly with jurors after lawmakers voted to end the practice of allowing judges to override their recommendations.
The House of Representatives voted 78-19 on Tuesday to abolish the state's one-of-a-kind practice of allowing judges to hand down death sentences even if a jury recommends life in prison. The Senate had approved the measure 30-1 in February. Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley has indicated he intends to sign the legislation.
Alabama was the only state left that had continued to give judges that power; Florida and Delaware had abolished the practice previously.
"It places the death penalty back in the proper perspective. It puts it ... where in my opinion the Constitution intends it to be: in the hands of juries," said Rep. Chris England, the Tuscaloosa Democrat who sponsored the legislation in the House.
The legislation would only affect future death sentences, not the 183 inmates currently on Alabama's death row.
Robert Dunham, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, said the practice was always an outlier.
Critics argued that allowing a judge to override a jury also interjected politics into the life-and- death decision, given that judges often faced election-year pressure to appear tough on crime.
A rare bipartisan coalition emerged in the Republican-controlled Legislature to push for an end to the practice. The sponsor of the Senate bill, Sen. Dick Brewbaker, is a Republican, while the sponsor of the House bill is a Democrat. Helping the legislation, England said, was the concern that federal courts might one day strike down Alabama's death penalty sentencing structure.
However, not everyone was in favor.
Rep. Allen Treadaway, a police captain, listed off examples where he thought judges rightly overrode jury's decisions. He mentioned a case where a judge overruled a jury's decision to give a person convicted of killing three Birmingham police officers life in prison.
"I think we've got a good system in place," said Treadaway, a Republican from Morris.
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.
Bryan Stevenson, the founder of the Equal Justice Initiative, said last month that 20 percent of the people on death row are there because of judicial override.
"Override undermines the role of jurors, who sometimes deliberate for hours to make the right decisions in these cases on behalf of the community," Stevenson said. "Alabama has had one of the highest death-sentencing rates in the country largely because we add to death row so many people juries do not believe should be executed."
Bentley commended Brewbaker and England for sponsoring the legislation.
"HB32 will undergo the standard legal review process; however I am looking forward to signing this bill," Bentley wrote in a statement.
England jettisoned an effort to require unanimous agreement among jurors to impose a death sentence. That proposal was expected to get more pushback from lawmakers.
The Alabama bill retains the 10-2 jury recommendation for death.
"Alabama remains the only state to permit a judge to impose a death sentence based upon a non-unanimous jury recommendation for death," Dunham said.