In 2008, Montez Spradley was facing the death penalty in Alabama before an appeals court overturned his murder conviction, finding that the trial was so error- and bias-ridden that it was a “miscarriage of justice.” If not for the intervention of the appeals court and the assistance of experienced lawyers, Spradley would have died from that trial, but not because a jury sentenced him to death. By a vote of 10-2, even the jury that convicted him on the basis of skewed evidence determined that he should be sentenced to life in prison. It was the trial judge who decided that jury was wrong and used his unilateral authority to determine that Spradley deserved to die instead.
This is not an uncommon occurrence in Alabama, through what is known as a “judicial override,” a mechanism that allows judges to review the sentence of a jury even in instances of death. Eighteen years ago, when several states utilized overrides, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the practice as constitutional. But since then, it has fallen out of favor in almost every other state. Out of the 32 states that still allow the death penalty, 27 and the federal government consider the jury’s decision final and do not allow a judge to intervene. And even among those states that have the judicial override, judges rarely if ever still employ it. Since 2000, there have been just 27 judicial overrides, and 26 were in Alabama.
On Monday, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear a challenge to Alabama’s judicial override, over the protestation of Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Stephen Breyer. In a 15-page dissent to the court’s decision not to hear the case, Sotomayor surmises that there is only one reason supported by empirical evidence why Alabama uses the judicial override where other states have moved away from the arbitrary practice: judicial politics.
“Alabama judges, who are elected in partisan proceedings, appear to have succumbed to electoral pressures,” Sotomayor writes. Sotomayor points to examples of several judges who have imposed death penalty overrides on multiple occasions after having campaigned on support for capital punishment. One judge cited the murderers he has sentenced to death in a campaign ad. Another admitted in a 2011 news report that voter reaction does “have some impact” on sentencing decisions, “especially in high-profile cases.”
Numerous studies have linked judicial elections to tougher sentences, as campaigns typically come with “tough-on-crime” rhetoric. One study published in Harvard University’s The Review of Economics and Statistics found elected judges issue tougher sentences right before an election. Another recent Center for American Progress report linked corporate spending on judicial elections to more prosecution-friendly outcomes.
These findings, in part, speak to the hazards of elections for judges. But the risk of a wrong decision is particularly dire in the case of the death penalty, which is why Sotomayor calls on the court to at least reconsider the strong possibility that death sentences hinging on electoral politics constitute “cruel and unusual punishment” under the Eight Amendment. At the very least, she writes, the practice “casts a cloud of illegitimacy over the criminal justice system.”
Several cases in which Alabama judges have changed defendants’ sentences from life to death are particularly confounding. In one case, the judge changed the sentence to death for a man with an IQ of 65, reasoning, “[t]he sociological literature suggests Gypsies intentionally test low on standard IQ tests.” In another, a judge reasoned that he had to sentence a white now that he had sentenced three blacks to death. In others, judges provide little explanation at all.
Judicial overrides give judges the power to both remove and impose death sentences. But a 2011 Equal Justice Initiative report found that in 92 percent of Alabama overrides since the U.S. Supreme Court ended a death penalty moratorium in 1976, judges have changed a sentence from life to death, rather than the other way around.