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Alabama abolished judge’s waiver, but still seeks to execute lifers

On April 11, 2017, Alabama became the last state in the United States to abolish the judges’ waiver. But the state is still considering executing people whose juries voted for a life sentence.

Since 1976, Alabama judges have routinely overturned jury life verdicts to impose the death penalty — and they continued to do so long after the handful of other states that allowed the waiver stopped overriding them. the jury’s life verdicts.

“Alabama has become a clear outlier,” said Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, joined by Justice Stephen Breyer, written in 2013. The state “is now the only one in which judges continue to overturn jury verdicts of life without parole.”

The judges pointed out that Alabama judges frequently set aside verdicts for life even when the jury’s decision was unanimous, they did so without providing a meaningful explanation, and factors such as race and re-election prospects had a impact on derogation decisions.

Thirty people who were sentenced to life by their juries remain on death row in Alabama despite evidence that the override has led to arbitrary, unreliable and unconstitutional death sentences. That’s nearly 20% of people on death row in the state.

One of them is Kenny Smith, who was just 22 when he was charged with capital murder in the 1988 murder of a woman whose husband was involved in an affair, had incurred large debts and had taken out a large insurance policy on her. A week after the murder, when the investigation began to focus on the husband as a suspect, he committed suicide.

Prosecutors argued that Mr Smith, along with two other men, had been paid by the husband to kill his wife. Mr. Smith was convicted of capital murder for hire.

At the sentencing hearing, the jury found on one aggravating factor (that it was murder for hire) and on several mitigating factors, including his young age, that he had no no significant criminal history, that he appeared to be remorseful for what he had done, his good behavior in prison and in accompanying family members and others, and that he was neglected and deprived in his youth.

The jurors weighed the evidence and determined that the mitigating factors outweighed the single aggravating factor. The jury voted 11 to 1 to impose life without parole. The sentencing judge, however, rejected their almost unanimous verdict and sentenced Mr Smith to death.

Alabama Sen. Dick Brewbaker (R-Montgomery) sponsored the bill that ended the waiver in Alabama because it “goes against” our democracy to allow a judge to overrule the jury’s decision. “[W]We choose a jury from the community and they decide guilt, innocence and punishment,” he said. said in 2017. “You are entitled to a trial by a jury of your peers, and that should also apply to sentencing.”

Override” actually undermines our [jury] system, because the Constitution guarantees your right to a jury and to a trial by your peers,” the bill’s sponsor in the House, Rep. Chris England (D-Tuscaloosa), said. He hailed the House’s passage of the Abolition Bill, saying“[T]he Constitution intends [the death penalty] be in the hands of juries.

These arguments against overriding apply with equal force to people who were sentenced to death by judges despite jury life verdicts before 2017.

“Justice and equity dictate that no one shall be executed if convicted under rules and procedures, such as judicial waiver, which are subsequently declared unconstitutional or repudiated by the jurisdiction in which they were tried,” said legal expert Austin Sarat. wrote last month.

But now, more than five years after abolishing the waiver, Alabama plans to execute Mr Smith on November 17, even though a jury of his peers rejected the death penalty in his case.

Mr. Smith is the first person sentenced to death by judicial waiver whose execution the state has scheduled since the waiver was abolished.

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