Alabama has 196 inmates on death row. Under the rules of criminal procedure in the state, the jury can recommend death or life in prison if they have voted to convict a defendant of capital murder. However, the judge is not bound by the jury’s recommendation. Indeed, as the New York Times reports, “in nearly one in four of those cases, the jury voted for life in prison — in some cases unanimously — only to be overruled by the judge.” Alabama judges have converted jury recommended death sentences to life in 11 cases and sentenced defendants to death in 101 cases where the jury had recommended life.
We agree with the New York Times that these judges are likely disregarding the wishes of the jury for political reasons. Following the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center, the mood of the country shifted even further towards law and order than any other time in history, save the attack on Pearl Harbor. People are demanding that their elected officials, including judicial officers, adhere to “tough on crime” policies. Judges do not want to upset the political mindset of those who elect them. This is an understandable political principle, but judges are supposed to render opinions independent of politics.
Some argue that state judges should be appointed for life, so they would immune from electorate pressure, the same way federal jurists are. We disagree with this approach since all judges should be accountable to the voters and be required to run for election.
A better approach in Alabama would be to mandate that judges accept jury decisions that set the sentence at life and still retain the inherent power to convert jury recommended death sentences to life. Such an approach would be consistent with other protections afforded to defendants such as the presumption of innocence and unanimous verdicts.