POLITICS

Supreme Court Gives Prisoner Rare Second Chance To Fight Alabama's Death Sentencing Scheme

The state's judicial override regime may soon be on the chopping block.

A death row prisoner might get a rare second chance to argue the constitutionality of Alabama's capital punishment scheme.

After once turning down a request to hear the case of convicted murderer Bart Johnson, the Supreme Court on Monday reversed course and ruled for Johnson in a case that could have wide implications for the way Alabama sentences people to death.

It may have all come down to fortuitous timing. On Jan. 11, the justices rejected Johnson's case, but the very next day it issued its ruling on Hurst v. Florida, which held that Florida's sentencing scheme -- which allows judges instead of juries to impose the death penalty -- violates the Sixth Amendment.

Just days later, Johnson filed to reopen his case in light of the Hurst decision -- a request that the court this time granted.

In 2011, Johnson was convicted and sentenced to death for the 2009 murder of Philip Davis, a police officer in Pelham, Alabama.

Alabama, like Florida and Delaware, has a death penalty sentencing scheme wherein the jury's recommendation is only advisory and can be overruled by a judge.

"In Bart Johnson's case, like in Hurst, the judge imposed the death penalty based on finding two aggravating factors that were not clearly found by the jury," the defendant advocacy group Equal Justice Initiative said in a statement Monday. (An "aggravating factor," in this context, is a finding that would allow for the imposition of the death penalty.)

Under Alabama statute, 95 defendants have been sentenced to death by judges contrary to a jury's recommendation, Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor has noted.

Florida judges and legal experts are urging the Florida Supreme Court to re-sentence nearly 400 people currently on death row to life without parole. State lawmakers have already crafted new rules requiring that juries be unanimous in finding aggravating factors and that executions only be carried out if at least 10 out of 12 jurors recommend it.

Delaware's death penalty remains on hold pending litigation.

Since the Hurst ruling, at least three justices have spoken out about the flaws in Alabama's death penalty system, while Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer in particular is itching for a case that could kill the death penalty for good. 

Sotomayor noted in 2013 that Alabama had become an outlier among death penalty states in that its judges were continually overriding jury recommendations of life without parole, imposing death sentences instead. 

"The only answer that is supported by empirical evidence is one that, in my view, casts a cloud of illegitimacy over the criminal justice system: Alabama judges, who are elected in partisan proceedings, appear to have succumbed to electoral pressures," Sotamayor wrote. 

She added that it had been nearly two decades since justices reconsidered Alabama's death sentencing scheme.

"We owe the validity of Alabama’s system a fresh look," she wrote.

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