Alabama is the only state in the country that allows its judges to override juries to give criminals the death penalty instead of a life sentence. That 1976 policy might soon go by the wayside under legislation moving through the statehouse to rescind a judge's ability to overrule a jury recommendation.
Republican state Sen. Dick Brewbaker said he supports the death penalty, but sponsored his bill to reform a policy that he says is used much more often when judges are up for re-election since many Oklahomans support the death penalty.
Both his legislation — the Capital Cases, Sentencing, Court Prohibited from Overriding Jury Verdict bill — and a similar measure from Democratic Rep. Chris England are in committee. While a judge could give someone who has received the death penalty a life sentence instead, the policy is more often used in favor of capital punishment.
"Anybody who's ever watched any politician, whether it's in the major leagues of politicians or U.S. Senate, or the single leagues like Alabama state Senate — elected officials behave differently in election years, and I don't think it's shocking that when you apply that to the judicial system that it just doesn't seem to work out very well," Brewbaker said.
Alabama has executed 58 people since the Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty in 1976, the seventh-most in the country, according to DeathPenaltyInfo.org. Texas, which ranks first, had executed 540 through Feb. 1. However, Alabama has the highest per capita rate, partially because of its relatively small population, but also because judges can overrule juries with harsher punishments, according to supporters of eliminating the policy.