Using the Death Penalty to Get Re-Elected

Alabama judges seem to impose the ultimate judgment more often in an election year.


While most of the country was riveted by the verdict in the Casey Anthony case — invoking the O.J. trial and decrying what many regarded as an unjust verdict — the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI), a nonprofit criminal-defense and civil rights law and advocacy firm, released yet another in a series of reports that clearly demonstrate that the criminal-justice system, especially in the South, is broken and dangerously on the brink of illegitimacy. 

The EJI’s latest report (pdf) focuses on a little-known practice, permitted in only three states: judicial override. Florida, Delaware and Alabama allow judges to overturn jury-sentencing verdicts in death penalty cases. There are no individuals on death row in Delaware as a result of judicial override, and no judge has imposed a capital punishment override in Florida in the last 12 years. But according to the EJI report, judicial override in Alabama is almost always exercised to impose the death penalty when a jury has recommended life in prison. In fact, although judges have the authority under Alabama law to override a jury’s sentence of death and to instead impose a life sentence, 92 percent of judicial overrides are used to order death. 

According to EJI estimates, there are 40 men on death row in Alabama who were placed there after a judge overrode a jury’s sentence of life in prison. Given that Alabama imposes few obstacles to the imposition of the death penalty by juries (a death sentence does not require a unanimous verdict in Alabama — the agreement of 10 of 12 jurors is sufficient), and that jurors opposed to capital punishment are excluded from serving on Alabama juries, judicial overrides to impose death are particularly alarming. But these judicial overrides have not provoked charges of “activist judging,” confirming that the charge of judicial activism has simply become right-wing shorthand to describe a judge whose independence gets in the way of the conservative agenda.

Among the most disturbing but unsurprising findings in the report are that the judicial override in Alabama is almost always imposed when a jury has given a defendant life in prison for the murder of a white victim. According to the report, in Alabama 75 percent of death overrides involve a white victim, even though only 35 percent of homicide victims in Alabama are white. This coincides with long-standing studies that demonstrate the death penalty is imposed most often when the victim of the homicide is white.

Yet another devastating revelation is the evidence that judges override juries to impose the death penalty more often in a judicial election year. If one plus one still equals two, this is among the most searing indictments of judicial elections (still used in 38 states). It suggests that in some instances, judges, feeling the pressure of upcoming election contests, may either consciously or unconsciously make decisions that will shore up their “tough on crime” bonafides.