Alabama death sentences would require unanimous jury votes under bill

Legislation would also open the door to resentencing for some inmates

By: - March 1, 2023 7:00 am
A jury box filled with brown leather chairs.

An empty jury box. An Alabama legislator has introduced a bill that would require a unanimous jury vote to impose a death sentence. (Getty)

A Democratic legislator has introduced a bill that would require unanimous jury votes to impose the death penalty.

Rep. Chris England, D-Tuscaloosa has filed a bill that would require a unanimous jury vote to sentence a defendant to capital punishment. Alabama law currently allows the death penalty to be imposed if 10 of 12 jurors vote to do so. 

“It does not make sense to me that it takes a unanimous jury to convict someone of a crime, but that a jury doesn’t have to be unanimous to put someone to death,” England said. “It just doesn’t make sense.”

The bill is part of several that death penalty reform advocates are hoping to see in the session, including one to improve financial aid for death row inmates in their appeals process. 

“We say as a state that we are pro-life, people tend to say that when they vote, they tend to say that when it comes to other issues, but when it comes to the life of people convicted of crimes, it doesn’t seem to hold the same weight,” said Mike Nicholson, a policy analyst with Alabama Arise, an organization that focuses on policies targeting those living in poverty. “There is not any evidence that executing people is a deterrent to crime.”     

Alabama had approximately 165 people on death row in December, according to the Alabama Department of Corrections.

Besides raising the threshold for death sentences, England’s bill would also allow those sentenced to death by nonunanimous juries to seek resentencing. England’s legislation would also offer resentencing to those sentenced to death under a process known as judicial override. Until 2017, the state allowed judges to impose death sentences even when the jury recommended life in prison to a capital defendant. 

“There are still more than 30 people on Alabama’s death row who were sentenced to death before judicial override ended, and who were put there by a judge instead of a jury,” Nicholson said. “We believe that is obviously unfair. That is unfortunate timing for them.”

Advocates are also asking lawmakers to provide financial assistance for those who have been convicted and sentenced to death.

“It is not an easy thing to appeal a death sentence,” Nicholson said. “It is a complicated legal procedure, and in every other state that uses the death penalty, there is public money available for post-conviction proceedings.”  

The measures could face obstacles in a state where Republican officials remain strongly in support of the death penalty.  Last week, Gov. Kay Ivey lifted a three-month moratorium on the death penalty after Alabama Department of Corrections Commissioner John Hamm wrote that the state had completed an internal review of its death penalty procedures, following a string of botched executions last year. 

Ivey Friday asked Attorney General Steve Marshall to begin seeking death penalty warrants, saying DOC was “prepared as possible” to conduct executions and “even knowing that death row inmates will continue doing everything within their power to evade justice.” 

Messages seeking comment were left on Tuesday with House Judiciary Committee Chair Jim Hill, R-Moody and Senate Judiciary Committee Chair Will Barfoot, R-Pike Road.

Advocates said that allowing split votes on death sentences makes Alabama an outlier, even among states that impose capital punishment. Sarah Craft, the program director for the death penalty for Equal Justice USA, a national organization that advocates for criminal justice reform, noted that voters in Louisiana voted to abolish non-unanimous death sentences in 2018

“In Louisiana, the people there overturned a law that allowed for jury nonunanimity because of its racist origins,” she said. “It was very clear that the reason Louisiana allowed nonunanimous juries was to overcome the likelihood there was a Black person on the jury that they needed to overrule.”

England said imposing the death penalty “should be difficult.”

“It should be next to impossible,” he said. “It should be the hardest thing to do.”

For many advocates, implementing these changes amounts to an incremental step toward their final goal to finally end the death penalty in the U.S.  According to the American Civil Liberties Union, people of color have made up 43% of all executions since 1976 and account for 55% of all inmates on death row. A 2020 study by the Harvard Civil Rights-Civil Liberties Law Review found defendants accused of killing white victims were executed at a rate 17 times greater than those convicted of killing Black victims.  

“It is insidious,” said Richard Dieter, the executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, an organization that conducts research on the subject. “It is bad. It says that if a white person is murdered, that is more important. We are going to seek the death penalty in that case. Especially if the person who did it is Black, that is where you really get the highest numbers. That is a concern.” 

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Ralph Chapoco
Ralph Chapoco

Ralph Chapoco covers state politics as a senior reporter for States Newsroom. His main responsibility is the criminal justice system in Alabama.

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