Bill advances to take away AL judges' ability to override juries

Updated: Feb. 24, 2017 at 9:57 PM CST
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MONTGOMERY, AL (WSFA) - Alabama is now the only state in the country with a judicial override law, but that could soon come to an end. Judicial override allows judges to overturn a jury's verdict in a capital murder case from their recommendation of life without the possibility of parole to the death penalty, or the opposite.

Thursday a bill passed out of the Senate to end this controversial practice.

According to the Equal Justice Initiative, 20 percent of the inmates on death row in Alabama were sentenced to death by a judicial override, meaning a jury returned a sentence of life without the possibility of parole and the judge overturned that decision and sentenced the person to death.

Sen. Dick Brewbaker, R- Montgomery, calls judicial override a moral issue, something he's working to end with SB16.

"One of the most important things about our democracy is our laws are derived from the common law," Brewbaker said. "That's why a crime of violence is a crime against a community. That's why we have a trial in the community. That's why we pick a jury of the community and they decide guilt, innocence, and punishment. Judicial override flies in the face of that. You are entitled to a trial of a jury of your peers, and that ought to apply to sentencing too."

Brewbaker's bill would allow juries to hand down the death sentence in a 10-12 vote. The House version of the bill, HB32, sponsored by Rep. Chris England, D- Montgomery, would require a unanimous vote by a jury to hand down the death penalty.

"Whether we pass my bill, or bring England's up here, we are going to pass one of those bills," Brewbaker said.

The Alabama Bar Association supports ending judicial override and Brewbaker says judges are in support too. Many believe judicial override injects politics into the death penalty. Circuit judges are elected, and some numbers show overrides are higher during election years.

"It taints the process," Brewbaker said. "I did not have a single judge talk to me formally or informally say we need to keep judicial override. They were very frank in saying it's used to pressure them during election years."

Sen. Tripp Pittman, R- Montgomery, was the sole no vote on SB16 and added an amendment to make clear SB16 was not retroactive.

"I think it's appropriate for judges to have that discretion," Pittman explained. "With the complexity of certain trials and the heinous nature of some crimes, the judge needs that discretion and support them having that. I have confidence in all situations they will use that discretion properly.

The House is expected to vote on HB32 next week.

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