Non-unanimous death sentences stain Alabama’s justice system


By Dev Wakeley
Special to the
Opelika Observer

No matter how you feel about the death penalty, all Alabamians should be troubled by at least one aspect of Christopher Price’s execution last month. The state killed Price even though the 12 jurors who convicted him didn’t all agree that he deserved to die for his crime.
Two jurors who heard all the evidence at Price’s trial believed the appropriate punishment was life without parole. But because Alabama permits juries to impose the death penalty without a unanimous vote in favor of it, that wasn’t enough to spare his life. A 10-2 jury vote for execution was enough to sentence Price to death.
Alabama is the only state that allows judges to impose a death sentence based on a non-unanimous jury sentencing verdict. This practice is a travesty of justice, and it needs to stop.
The death penalty is becoming increasingly rare in the United States, with more and more states abandoning capital punishment entirely. Twenty-one states have outlawed the death penalty, and many others that still allow it haven’t executed anyone in decades. New Hampshire abolished the practice on the same day Alabama killed Price.
But even among states that still allow capital punishment, Alabama’s structure is outdated. And Alabama is the only state that doesn’t provide any post-conviction legal assistance for indigent inmates on death row.
In 2017, with the specter of federal court intervention looming, Alabama finally became the last state to forbid judicial override. This practice allows judges to sentence defendants to death despite a jury recommendation of life without parole. Even so, the judicial override ban was not retroactive. More than 30 people sent to our state’s death row as a result of this practice are still there.
The Eighth Amendment prohibits both cruel and unusual punishments. And Alabama’s non-unanimous death sentences are yet another cruel, unusual relic that should be cast aside.
Almost every other state with the death penalty has decided that when jurors disagree whether a person convicted of a capital crime deserves capital punishment, the sentence should be life imprisonment. The threshold is high because the stakes are so high: Putting someone to death is irreversible. It’s a weighty moral decision that cannot be made lightly.
But errors are all too frequent. Nationwide, one person on death row has been exonerated for every 10 executions conducted since 1976. No one would use a doctor who accidentally killed one out of every 10 patients. And no legislator should refuse to add legal safeguards to a system that carries so much risk of wrongful executions.
People shouldn’t be put to death when the entire jury of their peers can’t agree on a death sentence. Ask yourself if you are comfortable with the state ending someone’s life even when jurors who heard all the evidence have decided death isn’t justice.
Alabama’s criminal justice system is riddled with injustices, and many of the needed reforms are complicated. But ending non-unanimous death sentences would be a simple, reasonable step toward bringing sentencing practices up to modern standards. Alabama should take that step forward.
Dev Wakeley is a policy analyst at Alabama Arise, a nonprofit, nonpartisan coalition of congregations, organizations and individuals promoting public policies to improve the lives of low-income Alabamians.


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