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Alabama Judge Finds Death Sentence Process Unconstitutional

The ruling singles out judicial overrides of jury recommendations of life in prison as contrary to the Constitution.
Image: A gurney sits in Alabama's lethal injection chamber
A gurney sits in Alabama's lethal injection chamber at Holman Correctional Facility in Atmore, Ala., in 2002. Dave Martin / AP file

An Alabama judge on Thursday declared the state’s death penalty process unconstitutional, saying it violates defendants’ right of due process.

The ruling by 10th Judicial Circuit Court Judge Tracie Todd said judges are improperly allowed to override jury recommendations of life in prison without parole and instead impose a death sentence.

"At present Alabama is solitary in its unbridled system of allowing judges to deviate from jury advisory verdicts in order to effect life-to-death sentence overrides," Todd wrote. She said the current system allows for death sentences to be influenced by political concerns.

The ruling applies to four cases brought before the court in Jefferson County.

Todd agreed with lawyers for those defendants who argued Alabama’s system of imposing death sentences is similar to Florida’s, which the U.S. Supreme Court in January declared was unconstitutional.

Related: Executions Hit Two-Decade Low

In the Florida case, the Supreme Court found the law requires judges — not the jury — to make the critical findings necessary to impose capital punishment, in violation of the Sixth Amendment.

Alabama Attorney General Luther Strange said the state would appeal Todd’s ruling. The ruling does not apply to the state as a whole, he said.

"We fully expect today’s ruling by Judge Todd to be reversed,” Strange said in a statement to NBC affiliate WSFA in Montgomery. Strange said the Alabama Supreme Court on Wednesday rejected a similar argument.

Florida Gov. Rick Scott plans to sign a bill to overhaul that state’s death penalty system after the Supreme Court struck it down, The Associated Press reported.

The law approved by the Florida Legislature Wednesday would require at least 10 out of 12 jurors recommend an execution in order for it to be carried out.