The Unraveling of the Alabama Death Penalty:
Alabama’s Capital Sentencing Statute, Part 2 in a Series
“As any student of the death penalty in America knows, the chance that a person charged with a capital crime will live or die depends greatly on race, social class, and—perhaps most important—where the alleged crime was committed.”
The Judge as Lynch Mob
The American Prospect
December 19, 2001
Courtney Lockhart, a 26-year old African-American from Smiths Station, Alabama, served 16 months with the Army in Ramadi, Iraq, starting in 2004. According to NPR, Ramadi was one of the deadliest places to be at the time and 64 members of his brigade were killed.
On March 4, 2008, Lockhart carjacked Auburn freshman Lauren Burk, robbed her and forced her at gunpoint to strip naked. Lockhart later said he thought this would prevent her from trying to escape.
It did not. Burk jumped from the moving car, Lockhart shot her once in the back as she went out the door, and then left her, still alive, by the roadside.
Lauren Burk was found by a passing motorist on Alabama Highway 147 and died hours later at a local hospital. She was 18 years old.
Lockhart was arrested three days later and confessed to killing Burk. The Opelika-Auburn News reported that the murder took place in the middle of a series of robberies Lockhart committed, from February 28, 2008 until his arrest on March 7, 2008.
A Lee County jury voted to convict Lockhart of capital murder in 2010 and recommended 12-0 that he be sentenced to life imprisonment without parole, after considering his claim of post-traumatic stress syndrome following his dishonorable discharge from the Army.
Judge Jacob A. Walker III overrode the jury’s recommendation in March of 2011 and sentenced Lockhart to death by lethal injection.
The Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals upheld Judge Walker’s sentence, agreeing with him that the aggravating circumstance of Lockhart’s robberies, not known to the jurors, were enough to warrant the death penalty.
“We determine that Lockhart’s sentence is neither disproportionate nor excessive to the penalty imposed in similar cases.”
Lockhart’s case was appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court (SCOTUS) but was declined a hearing in April of 2015. Justices Sonya Sotomayor and Stephen Breyer dissented from the majority decision.
According to al.com, the same two justices had dissented two years previously in another Alabama judicial override case.
Justice Sotomayor authored the earlier dissent, acknowledging that in 1995 SCOTUS upheld the Alabama law allowing judicial overrides but she still was concerned with the constitutionality of the practice.
“Eighteen years have passed since we decided [Harris v. Alabama] and in my view, the time has come for us to reconsider that decision,” she stated.
“Since Alabama adopted its current statute, its judges have imposed death sentences on 95 defendants … contrary to a jury’s verdict. Forty-three of these defendants remain on death row today,” she wrote in the 2013 dissent.
SCOTUS has since held in January 2016 that the Sixth Amendment to the Constitution requires that a jury must find each fact necessary to impose a death sentence, not a judge. Which is exactly the opposite of what was done in the Courtney Lockhart trial, and in 101 other Alabama cases since 1976.
Alabama is now the only state in the country that allows one person – the judge – to overrule a jury’s recommendation and impose the death penalty over life in prison. And those judges are elected by voters who have little to no information about the candidates’ qualifications, but are fed a stream of vitriolic campaign ads.
According to a study released by the Brennan Center for Justice, trial judges in Alabama override jury verdicts sentencing criminal defendants to life and instead impose death sentences more often in election years. The same study notes that judicial campaign ads most often use a “soft on crime vs. tough on crime” theme, leading incumbent judges to demonstrate to voters their willingness to impose the harshest penalty – death.
An Alabama public defender, Texys Morris, argued in a capital murder case in 2015 that although Florida and Delaware at that time allowed judicial overrides in death penalty cases, it was rarely practiced. Delaware had no one on death row due to overrides and Florida had not had an override for death since 1999.
“The standard required for judicial override in Florida reflects a far greater respect for the jury’s verdict and the sanctity of life than the system used in Alabama,” Morris wrote.
The U.S. Supreme Court struck down Florida’s use of judicial override in death penalty cases in January.
Although 38 states have some form of judicial elections Alabama is one of only eight states that elect all state judges on a partisan ballot. After voting overwhelmingly Democrat from Reconstruction until the mid-eighties, the state began to turn hard right during the Reagan revolution. Both parties saw judicial races as a means to get their political views entrenched as law, and between 1986 and 1996, spending for judicial campaigns increased 776%.
The 1996 race for Alabama Supreme Court Justice was noticed nationwide for both cost (reaching the level of a U.S. Senate campaign) and hostility (an infamous TV ad featuring a skunk, with the tag line “… some things you can smell a mile away.”)
Afterwards, a state judicial elections oversight committee was formed to advise those running for judgeships on ethics and honesty in political campaigns. The committee was used sporadically through 2008, but lack of both funding and interest has played a part in its discontinuation.
Former Alabama Supreme Court Justice Sue Bell Cobb resigned her office in 2011 after deciding the cost of election was too high, and not just financially.
“Yes, to run for judge means pitching yourself to the public just as if you were running for dogcatcher.”
Former Justice Cobb went on to say, “In Alabama, would-be judges are allowed to ask for money directly. We can make calls not just to the usual friends and family but to lawyers who have appeared before us, lawyers who are likely to appear before us, officials with companies who may very well have interests before the court. And I did.”
All of this is to circle back to the fact that judges in, arguably, the most conservative state in the country are well aware of what their constituents – and donors – want on the bench. And the big bucks campaign ads do nothing to discourage this.
“ … candidates were portrayed as judges who, if given the chance, would release child molesters and murderers and order them to move in next door. Nothing could be further from the truth. But dignity and fairness are too often the first casualties in these kinds of endeavors,” continued Cobb.
Former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor has long been an outspoken advocate for appointed judges, forming an organization after her retirement to promote The O’Connor Judicial Selection Plan.
“No other nation in the world [has an elected judiciary],” she said at a conference on judicial independence at Fordham Law School, “because they realize you’re not going to get fair and impartial judges that way.”