Sen. Hank Sanders (D-23), has introduced four separate death penalty bills for the 2013 session. SB 30-34 will be reviewed by the Senate Judiciary Committee.
It is not my intent in this post to argue for or against the death penalty itself (most people have their minds made up on this subject), but to briefly examine each bill in light of how it might serve to improve our justice system, and benefit the people of Alabama. I think any move toward establishing a fairer system benefits everyone, and never more than when we look at the state's right to deprive you of your life.
I fully support SB 33, which would provide a 3 year moratorium on executions while the system is overhauled. Lord knows it needs it.
Alabama likes to execute people, especially in election years when “tough on crime” judges need to bolster their image in the public eye. Our execution rate is the sixth highest in the USA. In light of this Old Testament approach to justice in general, I think we can all agree that implementing measures to ensure more fairness and equity in imposing the “ultimate sentence” is important. Right now, what we have is a very unfair system where the poor, especially minority poor, are put to death and the wealthy escape the death penalty because they have competent counsel.
For instance, the oft-heard phrase “If you cannot afford an attorney, one will be appointed for you” has a slightly different flavor in a capital case if you know that:
Alabama has no statewide public defender system. Court appointed defense attorneys are paid at $40 an hour for time spent outside court and $60 for time spent in court, significantly below the market rate for lawyers in private practice. …One lawyer said the court paid him the equivalent of $4.98 per hour to defend his client's life.
ACLU Report Broken Justice: The Death Penalty in Alabama 10/05
SB 31 seeks to establish standards and procedures by which a court can determine whether a defendant is mentally retarded, thus bringing our judicial system a little closer to the 21st century and the Supreme Court ruling in Atkins v. Virginia.
-the Supreme Court reconsidered the issue in Atkins v. Virginia, 536 U.S. 304 (2002).
After applying society’s evolved standards of decency, the Court reversed its earlier holding, finding in Atkins that executing mentally retarded offenders violated the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment. In Atkins, the Court found that mental retardation directly affects a criminal offender’s culpability.
SB 34 “would prohibit the imposition of the death penalty for any criminal defendant who was less than 18 years of age at the time of the commission of the capital offense.” At that time, only the USA and Iran imposed the death penalty on minors. [some sources mentioned Somalia] Is Iran our shining example of justice here in Alabama? Some of the American Taliban evidently think so. Again, applying the same standard already upheld by the Supreme Court in Roper v. Simmons seems sensible – if only to save the trouble and expense of defending the decision. SCOTUS already sent Alabama packing on this exact issue not long ago.
In Exparte Adams, 955 So 2d. 1106 (Ala. 2005), the Supreme Court of Alabama remanded the death sentence of a juvenile for a rehearing in light of the Roper decision. The State of Alabama later sought review in the United States Supreme Court, on a single issue, “Whether this Court should reconsider its decision in Roper v. Simmons, 543 U.S. 551 (2005).
The Supreme Court denied certiorari with a published dissent on June 19, 2006; thereby re-establishing Roper as good law.
[Journal of International and Business Studies, Juvenile offenders and the death penalty in the United States.]
update: On June 25, 2012, the Supreme Court issued an historic ruling in Miller v. Alabama and Jackson v. Hobbs holding that mandatory life-without-parole sentences for all children 17 or younger convicted of homicide are unconstitutional.(EJI)
SB 32 Gets rid of what is known as “judicial override”. There is only one instance where I would find this acceptable, and that is if a judge decides to grant life rather than impose death. A small amendment to the bill to allow this would be encouraging. Under current Alabama law, the Judge in a capital case can overrule a jury's recommendation for life without parole and impose the death sentence. Prior to reading about this, I would have thought judicial override was to protect defendants from bloodthirsty local juries, but it seems the opposite is true in Alabama:
A new report from the Equal Justice Initiative in Alabama exposes the practice of state judges imposing death sentences by overriding a jury's recommendation for life. EJI's study found that judges in the state have overridden jury recommendations 107 times since 1976. In 92% of the overrides, judges overruled life verdicts to impose a death sentence.
“Alabama is one of only three states, along with Delaware and Florida, where this is allowed. In Alabama a jury needs a 10-2 vote to recommend a life or death sentence. In 10 cases a 12-0 recommendation for a life without parole sentence was over-ridden by a judge issuing the death sentence.” [wiki –Capital Punishment Alabama
Last but not least by any means is SB 30, repealing the death penalty altogether. I don't have a lot of hope this will pass, but consideration for the fact that at least 6 Death Row inmates in the State have later been exonerated should give one pause.
Consider the case of Freddie Lee Wright:
Freddie Lee Wright, executed 3/3/2000
Wright's first trial ended in a mistrial with eleven out of twelve jurors voting to acquit. – No physical evidence linked Wright to the crime. – Wright's co-defendants testified against him in exchange for receiving lesser sentences. Two of those co-defendants later recanted. One named another man as the killer. – The man who was originally arrested for the crime was never tried, even though his gun was identified as the murder weapon. – Key exculpatory evidence was suppressed by the prosecution. – The prosecution in Wright's second trial excluded all African-American persons from serving on the jury. – The detective who did much of the state's investigation admitted in court that he “bullshits his witnesses to get confessions” and that he lied to one of the co-defendants toward this end. – Two state Supreme Court justices voted to stay Wright's execution finding clear and convincing evidence of his innocence.
Full story here: http://www.clarkprosecutor.org/html/death/US/wright618.htm