Two Supreme Court justices criticize Alabama death-penalty overrides

Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor co-authored a dissent questioning whether state judges should be able to override jury verdicts and impose the death penalty. Jose Cabezas/AFP/Getty Images

Two U.S. Supreme Court justices say the time has come to take another look at whether state judges should be able to override a jury's verdict and impose the death penalty — citing 95 cases in Alabama where that's happened.

Justices Stephen Breyer and Sonia Sotomayor say "Alabama judges, who are elected in partisan proceedings, appear to have succumbed to electoral pressures" in imposing capital punishment when a jury has recommended life in prison.

Of the 31 states that allow capital punishment, only three permit a judge to override a jury's sentencing decision — Alabama, Delaware and Florida.

The last time it happened in Florida was 1999, and the one time it happened in Delaware, the sentence was overturned on appeal. Meanwhile, state court judges in Alabama have imposed death sentences contrary to a jury's verdict 95 times.

"Alabama has become a clear outlier," the justices said. 

Sotomayor's and Breyer's strikingly explicit criticism came in a dissent from the high court's denial of an appeal by Mario Dion Woodward, 39, who was convicted of murdering a Montgomery, Ala., police officer in 2006.

The jury voted 8 to 4 to send Woodward to prison for life without parole, but the judge held a separate proceeding, heard additional evidence and sentenced him to death.

In explaining why they believe electoral pressures influence Alabama judges, the dissent cites the experience of one judge who imposed death in cases when juries recommended life. 

The judge, they wrote, "campaigned by running several advertisements voicing his support for capital punishment" and named some of the defendants he sentenced to death.

In other cases, Alabama judges have given no meaningful explanation for their actions, Sotomayor and Breyer said in their dissent.

One judge, who sentenced to death a defendant with an IQ of 65, said "the sociological literature suggests Gypsies intentionally test low on standard IQ tests." Another said, "If I had not imposed the death sentence, I would have sentenced three black people to death and no white people."