Will Judge Tracie Todd’s Death Penalty Decision Change Alabama’s Law?
Mar. 7, 2016 (Mimesis Law) — What is the “right thing to do” when you’ve got two years’ job security left as an elected judge and really hate certain state laws, even though they’re the law and you swore to uphold it? That’s got to be a question Alabama Circuit Court Judge Tracie Todd is asking herself in recent days.
A Jefferson County judge Thursday morning ruled that Alabama’s capital murder sentencing scheme, which allows judges to override jury recommendations of life without parole and instead impose the death penalty, is unconstitutional.
Judge Todd’s order issued on March 3rd, barring the imposition of a death sentence on four defendants in her court, is unique in numerous respects. It’s going to be appealed, since the public loves “tough on crime” more than they care for concepts like “the right thing to do,” “fair and impartial,” or that old standby, “constitutional.”
It voices strong opinions on how capital cases are decided and the death penalty imposed in Alabama. It’s someone in a black robe acknowledging they get information and have power the jury doesn’t when making the decision to take a life, and saying “the death penalty will not be considered in my court.”
When a person is convicted of a capital offense in Alabama, the court is required to hold a separate sentencing hearing “as soon as practicable” after conviction to determine whether the defendant gets life without parole or death. Prior to the hearing, which may include the jury, the judge will get a pre-sentencing report that is not confidential, and made part of the record but apparently not shown to the jury.
The judge is also obligated to review a pre-sentence report prepared by the State Board of Pardons and Paroles. This report is not made available to the jury.
The trial court will then hear evidence of any aggravating or mitigating factors presented by both sides, and the judge makes the final decision. The jury will hear the evidence, and deliberate, and return a verdict, but it isn’t binding on the court.
The jury’s role is merely “advisory,” and if the person wearing the robe thinks the defendant should get death while the majority of the jury disagrees, then screw the majority. Off to the gallows the Defendant goes.
Essentially, the Alabama capital sentencing law allows a judge to overturn a jury recommendation without statutory guidelines to steer the final decision.
In January, the United States Supreme Court issued an opinion in Hurst v. Florida that held Florida’s sentencing scheme violated the Sixth Amendment because the judge had the final say when sentencing a person to death. Just like in Alabama.
The Sixth Amendment protects a defendant’s right to an impartial jury. This right required Florida to base Timothy Hurst’s death sentence on a jury’s verdict, not a judge’s factfinding. Florida’s sentencing scheme, which required the judge alone to find the existence of an aggravating circumstance, is therefore unconstitutional.
One defendant in the Alabama started the new year off by filing a Motion to Declare the Alabama Capital Murder Statute Unconstitutional and Bar the Death Penalty on New Year’s Day. The United States Supreme Court issued the Hurst decision on January 12th. The Jefferson County District Attorney’s office filed their response to the defendant’s motion on February 1st, and the Motion hearing came on March 3rd.
Judge Todd apparently read the Hurst decision in the interim. Her ruling heavily reflects that. In complete fairness, it also reflects her disgust with the Alabama judicial election process, how the judicial branch is funded and staffed, the lack of courtroom security, and her extensive love of misleading footnotes. From the outside, it looks like Judge Todd is bating the DA’s office into appealing her ruling.
But Todd said her ruling likely will be appealed by prosecutors. If an appellate court were to uphold her ruling, then it would become a precedent and apply to cases around the state, attorneys said.
The Attorney General’s response to Judge Todd’s ruling sounds like they’ve taken the bait.
“Judge Todd’s ruling today is not a general pronouncement for the State of Alabama, but is strictly limited to the four cases upon which she ruled in the Jefferson County Circuit Court,” Alabama Attorney General Luther Strange said Thursday afternoon. “Alabama’s capital sentencing statutes are constitutional. Just yesterday the Alabama Supreme Court denied the appeal of a capital murder defendant who had filed a similar pre-trial motion, and the Court refused to declare Alabama’s capital statute’s unconstitutional. We are currently reviewing the Judge’s written order, and expect to file an appeal. We fully expect today’s ruling by Judge Todd to be reversed.”
The practical result of Judge Todd’s ruling means the four defendants in this Order will get life without the possibility of parole, as will any others lucky enough to find themselves in front of Judge Todd for the next two years, since she’s up for reelection in 2018.
The theoretical result is that Judge Todd’s case becomes “precedent.” That’s all. It won’t change the minds of elected officials who firmly believe the judiciary should have more say when taking a person’s life than the jury.
It won’t call for a reform in the capital sentencing scheme at the legislative level in the Yellowhammer State, and as Justice Sotomayor notes in Hurst, uttering “stare decisis”doesn’t always fly as a legal argument.
Judge Todd is correct. Alabama’s current capital sentencing scheme violates the Sixth Amendment according to the Supreme Court’s Hurst opinion, and needs to be changed. But is attempting to set a “precedent” when you swore to uphold the law, no matter how reprehensible you may find parts of it, really “what’s right?”
Hopefully, Alabama’s legislature will hear Judge Todd’s call for reform. Then we can see “what’s right” for people facing capital murder charges in a state that apparently places more emphasis on winning NCAA football championships than the Constitution.