Monday, July 28, 2014

Usurping the power of the jury deep in the Heart of Dixie

In 2010 Courtney Lockhart, a US Army veteran who served in Iraq, was convicted of the 2008 carjacking and murder of Auburn University student Lauren Burk. A jury, having heard testimony about his experience in Ramadi, Iraq - 64 members of his brigade were killed - unanimously recommended that the court sentence Mr. Lockhart to life in prison rather than death.

But Lee County Circuit Judge Jacob A. Walker III decided to disregard the jury's recommendation and he sentenced Mr. Lockhart to death in 2011.

Back in 2000, the US Supreme Court held that juries must make all decisions regarding sentencing in criminal cases - unless the defendant chose to go to the court for punishment. The Court was emphatic that this would apply in death penalty cases.

Today there are only three states in which judges are able to override jury-recommended sentences and in two of those states, Florida and Delaware, judges don't exercise that power. But in Alabama, judges still exercise their power to override jury-recommended sentences.

Mr. Lockhart took the issue up to Alabama's Court of Criminal Appeals where he lost. Now the issue is in front of the Alabama Supreme Court.

Per NPR...
In contrast, the practice of judicial override in Alabama is so widespread that it accounts for one-fifth of death row prisoners. Thirty such overrides took place in Alabama in the 1980s; there were 44 in the 1990s, and there have been 27 since 2000. The most recent statistics show more than 40 current death row inmates were sentenced by judicial override, contrary to the judgment of the jury. 
Part of what is at work in Alabama is political. The Equal Justice Initiative asserts that "the proportion of death sentences imposed by override often is elevated in election years." For instance, while judicial overrides accounted for 7 percent of death sentences in the nonelection year of 1997, in the election year of 2008, they accounted for 30 percent. And a number of elected judges have featured their death penalty records in campaign commercials.
The result of allowing one person to ignore the recommendation of the jury is that, in some years, there are more death sentences handed down in Alabama than in Texas.

Permitting a judge to ignore the recommendation of a jury is the equivalent of taking away a criminal defendant's right to have a jury decide his sentence. A jury is supposed to be the voice of the community and when the jury makes the decision to recommend life instead of death, that jury is voicing the opinion of the community.

Allowing one person to veto that decision means that the death penalty in Alabama is handed down in an arbitrary and capricious manner. It shouldn't be surprising to know that Mr. Lockhart is black and that Ms. Burk was white. But then I'm certain that played no factor in Judge Walker's decision.

I wonder how many times this issue arises when the defendant is black and the victim is white. I'm fairly certain that it's no coincidence.

I suspect that the Alabama Supreme Court will do its part and affirm the decision since, after all, the law says he can do it, and that this matter will find itself in front of the US Supreme Court at some point. That should put an end to the practice once and for all.

But how many others will have to suffer the same fate until someone does the right thing and take the power to decide life and death out of the judge's hand in Alabama? The right to a jury trial means nothing if the judge can usurp the jury's power to determine punishment in a death penalty case.

No comments: