POLITICS

Alabama Judge Rules State's Death Penalty Scheme Unconstitutional

The state's death sentencing policy is similar to the one struck down in Florida by the Supreme Court.

An Alabama circuit judge has ruled the state's death penalty scheme unconstitutional. 

Jefferson County Circuit Judge Tracie Todd barred the death penalty for capital murder defendants Benjamin Acton, Terrell McMullin, Stanley Chatman and Kenneth Billups on Thursday, AL.com reports. It wasn't immediately clear what sentences the men will now receive.

While Todd's ruling blocks the death penalty in the cases that come before her, it will be up to other judges to follow her lead, attorneys present for the ruling told AL.com. The decision could set a statewide precedent, however, if it is appealed and then upheld by an appellate court.  

Alabama currently allows judges to override a jury's recommendation of life in prison and impose capital punishment instead. The state also requires only 10 juror votes for a death sentence recommendation, rather than a unanimous decision from all 12 jurors, as in some other death penalty states.

A 2015 study from the Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race and Justice at Harvard Law School found that 26 out of 34 Alabama death sentences in the past five years were non-unanimous decisions. 

Todd noted in an interview that the state executes more defendants than states five times its size. 

Todd's ruling said Alabama's judiciary had been "hijacked" by partisan interests and legislative neglect, and highlighted how partisan politics potentially impact the incidence of capital punishment. Researchers have found that death penalty recommendations resulting from judicial override are more common in election years. 

The judge also wrote that many capital murder defendants receive ineffective indigent legal defense. A trial judge decides which attorney will represent a defendant in Jefferson County -- which leads the state in death sentences resulting from judicial override, according to a study Todd cited.

Those factors, she ruled, mean the death penalty is imposed in a “wholly arbitrary and capricious” manner in Alabama.

Florida and Alabama were among the states that allowed judges, rather than juries, to impose the death sentence. In January, the Supreme Court ruled Florida's sentencing scheme unconstitutional in Hurst v. Florida, saying it violated the Sixth Amendment. 

Jefferson County district attorneys and the Alabama attorney general did not immediately respond to requests for comment to confirm if they would appeal the ruling. 

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