Former AL chief justice weighs in on judicial override legislation

Published: Feb. 27, 2017 at 11:44 PM CST|Updated: Feb. 28, 2017 at 1:26 PM CST
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MONTGOMERY, AL (WSFA) - This week, the Alabama House is expected to take up HB32 that would end a legal practice called judicial override, where a judge can overturn a jury's decision of life without the possibility of parole in a capital murder case to the death penalty.

The Senate passed a companion bill in a 30-1 vote last week. Alabama is now the only state in the country with a judicial override law.

Former Chief Justice Sue Bell Cobb ruled on countless capital murder cases on the Court of Criminal Appeals and the Alabama Supreme
Court. She wholeheartedly supports abolishing judicial override on two fronts.

Cobb believes a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision unequivocally strikes down the practice and her concern over elected judges overruling juries on fact.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled against judicial override in Hurst v. Florida. At the time, three states were practicing judicial overrides. Florida and Delaware ended the practice, leaving Alabama as the outlier.

Cobb calls this a bipartisan issue, stating it's the right thing for the Alabama Legislature to do for all the right reasons.

"The United States Supreme Court in the Hurst decision that dealt with the Florida law put the handwriting on the wall," Cobb explained. "I am so proud of Sen. Dick Brewbaker and Rep. Chris England, HB32 is coming up tomorrow in the House Chamber. I am so proud of both of them, for tackling this issue before Alabama spends hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of dollars on an issue that we are going to lose. The United States Supreme Court has made it systematically, continually clear they are not going to allow judges to make decisions regarding facts that ultimately lead to a death sentence."

Cobb is vocal in stating money doesn't belong in judicial races. Numbers show more jury decisions are overturned for the death penalty during election years.

"The numbers are there, and I don't think the numbers lie," Cobb stated. "Why it happens, we would have to be the good Lord above to understand truly.  The point is right now, the United States Supreme Court has spoken. The Hurst case is the most recent. The other two states did something about it through their supreme court or legislature. We are now the outlier."

Brewbaker's bill passed the Senate in a 30-1 vote last week. Cobb encourages everyone to get involved in the legislative process.

"I just hope anyone, and everyone, will call their legislators and say 'I have your back, and do the right thing,'" Cobb said.

The House and Senate bills are different in the number of required juror votes to sentence a defendant to the death penalty.

"I understand why Sen. Brewbaker went with the 10-2 because that's Alabama law," Cobb explained. "From my reading of the Hurst case, Rep. England's bill is what should be passed because it's 12-0 vote. No other state allows a non-unanimous verdict to impose a death sentence."

Cobb also believes the state could see significant cost savings in sending fewer inmates to death row.

"When and if they pass it, and I pray that they will, it will be a positive thing for the General Fund," Cobb said. "It will help the Department of Corrections to move staff from death row to the general population where our inmates can be safer."

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