Report: Ala. Judges More Often Apply Death Penalty Overrides to Jury Life Sentences

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Criminals in Alabama are much more likely than those in other states to see their jury-recommended sentences of life in prison elevated to the death penalty by judges, a new report recently found.

According to the Equal Justice Initiative’s “The Death Penalty in Alabama: Judge Override,” of the 34 states with the death penalty, Alabama is the only jurisdiction where judges routinely override jury-recommended sentences of life imprisonment to instead impose capital punishment.

Since 1976, judges in the “Yellowhammer State” have overridden jury verdicts 107 times. Judges in the state have authority to override verdicts of both life imprisonment and the death penalty, strengthening or toughening the sentence opted for by the jury as they see fit. But in 92 percent of overrides, elected judges have overruled jury sentences of life imprisonment to enforce the death penalty.

The report also found that judges in the state more often increase life sentences to the death penalty in cases involving White victims than those in cases in which the victim was Black. While less than 35 percent of all homicide victims in Alabama are White, 75 percent of all death sentences issued by override involve White victims.

Researchers found that the high number of overrides is part of the reason why Alabama has the highest per capita death sentencing and execution rate in the country. While Alabama has a state population of 4.5 million people, the state imposed more new death sentences than the state of Texas, which has a population of 24 million.

Only three states—Alabama, Delaware and Florida—permit overrides by judges. But the latter two states generally use the move to overrule jury recommendations of the death penalty and impose life imprisonment instead.

Courtney Lockhart is among those Alabama residents who have seen their sentence overridden. According to The Huffington Post, in March a jury in Lee County, Alabama found the 26-year-old Black Iraq veteran guilty of murdering an 18-year-old White college student in 2008. After the jury unanimously recommended life without parole, Judge Jacob Walker overrode their recommendation sentenced Lockhart to die by lethal injection.

While the defense argued that Lockhart suffered psychological damage as a result of his service in Iraq, Walker wrote that Lockhart deserved death because of his ties to other crimes not brought up at his murder trial. He wrote that, had the jury been notified of the additional information, “their sentencing recommendation would likely have differed.”

Lockhart will receive an automatic appeal under state law, according to the Associated Press.