Sotomayor Critiques Alabama Sentencing in Supreme Court Dissent

By aholsinger

The U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear an appeal from Alabama death row inmate Mario Woodward, who was sentenced to death in 2008 despite a jury’s 8-4 recommendation for a life sentence. Alabama is one of only three states that allow a judge to override a jury’s sentencing recommendation for life to impose a death sentence; Florida and Delaware also allow the practice, but death sentences by judicial override are very rare in those states. Justice Sonia Sotomayor dissented from the Court’s decision, saying that the Court should reconsider Alabama’s death sentencing procedure. In an opinion joined by Justice Stephen Breyer, Sotomayor said that 26 of the 27 cases since 2000 in which judges imposed death sentences over a jury’s recommendation for life came from Alabama. The other case came from Delaware, but was overturned by the Delaware Supreme Court. Sotomayor speculated that Alabama’s elected judges may face political pressures that appointed or nonpartisan judges in other states do not face. “What could explain Alabama judges’ distinctive proclivity for imposing death sentences in cases where a jury has already rejected that penalty?,” she wrote. “The only answer that is supported by empirical evidence is one that, in my view, casts a cloud of illegitimacy over the criminal justice system: Alabama judges, who are elected in partisan proceedings, appear to have succumbed to electoral pressures.”

A New York Times editorial also addressed the case. The editorial board noted that 90% of Alabama’s judicial overrides impose death where a jury recommended life, with only 10% imposing life over a jury’s recommendation for death. “The death penalty should have no legitimate mooring at all in modern American society, and it certainly should not be imposed by a judge who is worried about keeping his job,” the editorial said.

(R. Barnes, “Sotomayor questions Alabama death-penalty process,” Washington Post, November 18, 2013; Editorial, “Death Meted Out by Politicians in Robes,” New York Times, November 18, 2013.) See U.S. Supreme Court. Read the full dissent.

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