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↓  Supreme Court lets Alabama judges impose death penalty
Richard Wolf , USA TODAY Published 12:18 p.m. ET Jan. 23, 2017 | Updated 12:29 p.m. ET Jan. 23, 2017
Supreme Court death penalty
(Photo: MANDEL NGAN, AFP/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court refused Monday to consider challenges to Alabama's death penalty system, the only one in the country that lets judges overrule juries and impose death sentences.

The court's denial of several lower court appeals came a year after the justices ruled 8-1 against a similar capital punishment protocol in Florida. Since that decision, state supreme courts there and in Delaware have struck down those systems.

Many opponents of the Alabama system had expected the justices to take up a challenge. Justice Sonia Sotomayor, in particular, has criticized the state for allowing elected judges to impose executions even when juries recommend life sentences.

A recent study by the Alabama-based Equal Justice Initiative, one of the groups challenging the state's death penalty system, found that judges overrode jury verdicts 107 times in the four decades since the Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty. In nearly all those cases, judges imposed death sentences. The study said 21% of 199 people on the state's death row were sentenced through such judicial overrides.

The state executed two prisoners last year, more than any other state except Georgia and Texas. It ranks seventh in total executions since 1976, behind Texas, Oklahoma, Virginia, Florida, Missouri and Georgia.

Last November, five justices agreed to block the execution of Alabama's Tommy Arthur, who had raised objections both about judicial override and the state's lethal injection protocol. Chief Justice John Roberts added his vote to those of the four liberal justices "as a courtesy" so that the case could be considered for review. It was one of three cases denied Monday.

The following month, the justices green-lighted the execution of Alabama's Ronald Smith for a 1994 murder in which a judge overrode a jury verdict and sentenced him to death.

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In last year's Florida case, Sotomayor ruled that "the 6th Amendment requires a jury, not a judge, to find each fact necessary to impose a sentence of death. A jury's mere recommendation is not enough."

Alabama officials had pointed out differences between their system and Florida's. They argued that in Alabama, juries must find at least one aggravating circumstance that make defendants eligible for the death penalty. Florida and Delaware courts demand more stringent findings.

The differences did not impress Sotomayor in 2013, when she dissented from the high court's refusal to hear a challenge similar to those denied Monday. Alabama's elected judges, she said at the time, "appear to have succumbed to electoral pressures.”

The skirmish over Alabama's system is part of the continuing Supreme Court battle over the nation's ultimate penalty — one imposed and carried out less often each year, but which voters in California, Nebraska and Oklahoma decided to retain in November.

Read more:

Does the death penalty serve a purpose? Supreme Court hasn't decided either
The justices are increasingly divided over when it is applied, how it is administered and whether it serves any purpose. Since the turn of the century, they have ended executions for the intellectually disabled, those whose crimes were committed as juveniles, and those who do not commit murder or treason. Last year, Justices Stephen Breyer and Ruth Bader Ginsburg said it was time to decide whether capital punishment itself should be abolished.

Read more:

Supreme Court refuses to ban controversial method of execution
Time, however, is not on their side. President Trump soon will nominate the late Justice Antonin Scalia's successor, someone who is virtually certain to support the death penalty. Before his term is over, Trump could get the chance to replace one or more of the five justices who have limited its scope. Three of them — Ginsburg, Breyer and Justice Anthony Kennedy — are long past traditional retirement age.


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