On January 12, 2016, the United States Supreme Court in the case of Hurst v. Florida ruled that Florida’s existing death penalty sentencing structure is unconstitutional. The reason for this ruling is Florida allows judges to override a jury’s determination of the appropriate sentence in a capital murder case. In other words, even if a jury recommends a sentence of life without parole, Florida allows their judges to override that recommendation and sentence a defendant to the death penalty.
In the opinion, drafted by Justice Sotomayor, she states: “The Sixth Amendment requires a jury, not a judge, to find each fact necessary to impose a sentence of death. A jury’s mere recommendation is not enough.
Alabama’s capital sentencing structure, like Florida’s, gives Circuit Judges in a capital murder trial the power to sentence a defendant to death, even if the jury recommends life without parole. Given the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling, it is expected that Alabama’s system will fall under the same scrutiny and will seemingly have to be changed.
Such a sentencing structure has received extensive criticism as studies have shown that Alabama’s Circuit Judges, who are state officials that must seek re-election by the public every six years, often over-ride jury recommendations and impose death sentences at a higher rate during election years, than non-election years. Such studies suggest that some elected judges, in trying to appear to be the “tough on crime” candidate, may impose the death penalty knowing such a sentence will receive media coverage and encourage citizens to re-elect them.
Death penalty opponents see the Hurst decision as a huge step forward in the justice system in Florida, and hopefully in Alabama. Birmingham criminal attorney Jim Parkman, lead attorney for Parkman White, LLP “I think Alabama judges would prefer not to have the burden of deciding the sentence in a death penalty case. I actually think they would be relieved to let the jury make the final determination.”
Parkman also indicates he believes this is part of a national trend and an erosion of the public’s confidence in the death penalty. “Everyone I know has watched ‘Making a Murderer’, (the Netflix movie documenting the wrongful conviction of Steven Avery on Sexual Assault charges, and presumably on murder charges as well). I think the public is now aware that wrongful convictions are not uncommon. People don’t want to think that an elected politician imposes the ultimate punishment on someone that may ultimately proven innocent. While I think the death penalty should be abolished, I think this is an important decision to improve our justice system.”
While the Hurst decision only dealt with the Florida sentencing structure, attorney Parkman expects Alabama attorneys to immediately begin raising similar objections to Alabama’s law.