Justice Sotomayor dissents from failure to review Alabama law allowing judges to override jury verdicts of life imprisonment and impose death

Alabama law allowing elected judges to reject jury sentences of life imprisonment and impose the death penalty should be reviewed by the Supreme Court, Justice Sonya Sotomayor said in a dissent from the Court’s refusal to consider such a case.  An Alabama jury voted 8-4 to sentence Mario Woodward to life imprisonment with the possibility of parole after hearing evidence of his childhood and parenting at a sentencing hearing.  However, the trial judge, elected as a Democrat to his position, overrode the death sentence and imposed the death penalty.

Since Alabama adopted its current death penalty statute, its judges have imposed death sentences on 95 defendants sentenced to life without parole by juries.  In cases in which juries voted to impose the death penalty, judges overrode and imposed life imprisonment only nine times.  Only two other states, Florida and Delaware, allow overrides, but Alabama is the only state in which judges still override jury verdicts.   Twenty-six of the 27 life-to-death overrides in the nation since 2000 were by Alabama judges.  (The other, which occurred in Delaware, was later reduced to a sentence of life imprisonment.)

Justice Sotomayor, joined in part by Justice Breyer, identified the reason for overrides in Alabama.  “Alabama judges, who are elected in partisan proceedings, appear to have succumbed to electoral pressures,” she said.  She observed that a “national consensus has Continue reading

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SC Supreme Court refuses to address racial bias of juror and prosecutor in capital case

The South Carolina Supreme Court refused to review a juror’s reference to a man sentenced to death as a “dumb nigger” and racial tactics employed by the prosecutor before an all-white jury to get the death penalty.   Johnny Bennett, an African American, was sentenced to death by an all-white jury in 2000 after an earlier death sentence, imposed by a mixed-race jury in 1995, was reversed on appeal.

A juror stated after the second trial that Bennett had committed the crime “because he was just a dumb nigger.” In a hearing before the trial court, the juror admitted using the racial slur as well as using it with “dumb” on previous occasions.  The trial judge, in an order Continue reading

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Implicit racial bias influences imposition of the death penalty

Racial stereotypes of jurors who may associate white defendants as having more worth than black defendants contributes to the racial disparities in the infliction of the death penalty, according to a recent study.  The study further found that death-qualified jurors held stronger racial biases than potential jurors who would be excluded from serving in death penalty cases because of their inability to consider a sentence of death.  The study, Devaluing Death: An Empirical Study of Implicit Racial Bias on Jury-Eligible Citizens in Six Death Penalty States,” was based on testing of 445 jury-eligible individuals by researchers Justin Levinson, Robert Smith, and Danielle Young, and will be published in the New York University Law Review.

Other factors that contribute to racial disparities include discretionary decisions made by law enforcement with regard to stops, arrests investigation of cases, and by prosecutors with regard to charging, seeking the death penalty, resolving cases with plea bargains and striking potential jurors on the basis of race.  These and other racial factors are discussed elsewhere on this site.

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Hiring and firing of nightclub employees among questions raised about public defender elected with prosecution and police support

Matthew Shirk earned considerable notoriety by winning an election in 2008 to become the public defender in Jacksonville, Florida with the support of police and prosecutors and a promise that, if elected, he would not allow public defenders to accuse police officers of lying.  Upon winning, he fired ten senior lawyers in the office, significantly diminishing its ability provide competent representation to poor people accused of crimes.  Now his hiring practices have come under scrutiny.

Shirk hired two women who worked at he Whisky River nightclub and restaurant as investigators in May, 2013, after finding one of the women on social media and considering her attractive, according A. L. Kelly, who resigned as director of investigations because of Shirk’s treatment of the women.   Shirk fired them less than a month later, Continue reading

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Louisiana defendant selected for death because of public defender’s budget constraints

For the second time this year, the U.S. Supreme Court has refused to review the continued indifference to funding for the right to counsel in capital cases – and the State of Louisiana’s concomitant desire to have the death penalty but not pay for it.  In Boyer v. Louisiana, the Court, after first granting review of the case, ultimately refused to address the question of whether failure to fully fund counsel, investigators and experts in a capital case for years violated the defendant’s constitutional rights to counsel and a speedy trial.  In Garcia v. Louisiana, the Court was presented with a similar occasion, where the defendant was unquestionably prejudiced by the lack of funding.  Essentially, three men were charged with capital murder in West Baton Rouge, Louisiana.   The facts of Garcia v. Louisiana are described here:

The public defender office could not represent all of them or afford to adequately provide separate capital representation to each of them.  Even the prosecutor informed the trial Continue reading

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