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Sotomayor questions Alabama death-penalty process

Justice Sonia Sotomayor called Monday for a new look at whether judges should be allowed to overrule juries to impose death sentences, saying that elected judges in Alabama “appear to have succumbed to electoral pressures” in making such decisions.

Although three states allow judges to override jury recommendations that a killer receive life in prison — Florida and Delaware are the others — only judges in Alabama are using the power, Sotomayor wrote.

She was joined by Justice Stephen G. Breyer in dissenting from the court’s decision not to hear a case brought by an Alabama death-row inmate who killed a Montgomery police officer. Four of the nine justices must agree to hear a case, but the court’s other liberals, Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Elena Kagan, did not agree to do so.

Sotomayor noted that the court approved Alabama’s death-penalty procedure 18 years ago. “In my view, the time has come for us to reconsider that decision,” she wrote.

In a statistic-filled opinion, Sotomayor said that since 2000, 26 of the 27 cases in which judges imposed death sentences over the recommendations of juries came from Alabama. The other was from Delaware, but the state’s supreme court overruled and converted the sentence to life in prison without parole.

What makes Alabama different? Sotomayor asked.

“There is no evidence that criminal activity is more heinous in Alabama than in other states, or that Alabama juries are particularly lenient in weighing aggravating and mitigating circumstances,” the justice 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.”

In recent years, some states, including Maryland, have abandoned the death penalty. Of the 32 that allow the sentence, 31 allow for some sort of jury participation. And in 27 of those, Sotomayor wrote, if the jury decides on a life sentence for the crime, a judge cannot disturb the judgment.

In Alabama, as in most states, the jury considers aggravating and mitigating circumstances, and if the latter outweigh the former, the jury is required to recommend life imprisonment. A life-without-parole verdict requires a majority of the 12 jurors; a death sentence requires 10 votes.

But the judge need only consider the recommendation and is free to hear other evidence and make a different decision.

In the case of Mario Dion Woodward, who was convicted of shooting and killing Officer Keith Houts in 2006 after a traffic stop, the jury voted 8 to 4 to recommend life imprisonment. The judge, who Woodward’s petition notes was up for reelection in two years, sentenced him to death instead.

Sotomayor said that since 1982, 95 defendants received the death penalty despite a jury’s recommendation of leniency, and in 12 of the cases, the jury’s vote for a life term was unanimous. She listed the cases in an appendix to the opinion.

“Today, Alabama stands alone: No other state condemns prisoners to death despite the considered judgment rendered by a cross-section of its citizens that the defendant ought to live,” Sotomayor wrote.

The case is Woodward v. Alabama.

Robert Barnes has been a Washington Post reporter and editor since 1987. He has covered the Supreme Court since November 2006.

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