Policy Update: The Jury's Role in Capital Cases in Alabama
This session HB14 was put forth in Alabama that would have made significant changes to the role of the jury in death penalty cases.
We have some policy updates as jury-related legislation makes its way through legislative sessions, starting with this one from Alabama. Alabama is one of just two states I could find that allow non-unanimous juries to impose death sentences. Just two more states beyond those allow judges to decide the sentence in a capital case when the jury is split. This session HB14 was put forth in Alabama to make significant changes to the role of the jury in death penalty cases such as:
1. requiring the jury to be unanimous to sentence a defendant to death
2. retroactively applying the unanimity requirement to cases already adjudicated, meaning those sentenced to death by non-unanimous juries could be re-sentenced to life without parole (LWOP)
3. retroactively applying previous legislation that banned judges from overriding jury recommendations for sentencing in capital cases such that people on death row because a judge overrode the jury's recommendation of LWOP could be resentenced
That bill is effectively dead this session.
In cases where someone is accused of a crime so serious it is eligible for the death penalty, jurors who believe they committed the crime typically do not want to simply let the person go free. In capital cases, "jury nullification" typically refers to jurors choosing to exercise restraint during the sentencing phase by choosing life without parole instead of execution even though all of the conditions for death penalty eligibility have been met.
It is important to note that this is different from the case where juries choose life without parole because they do not believe all the conditions for death penalty eligibility have been met. Just because someone has been convicted of a capital crime, that does not automatically mean they are eligible for the death penalty. Jurors must weigh a variety of mitigating and aggravating circumstances to determine a convicted person's eligibility for the death penalty. Yet whenever juries deliver an unpopular LWOP sentence, politicians are sure to accuse them of jury nullification as an excuse to weaken their role.
But even if they are engaging in sentencing phase jury nullification, it is their right to make that judgment according to their conscience. Non-unanimous jury sentencing and judicial override undermines the power of one, some, or even the whole jury (in the case of judicial override) to exercise this right.
Clock runs out on Alabama bill to require unanimous jury for death penalty, AL.com, 25 May 2023
Animal Passion, Alabama Death Sentences, and HB 14, Montgomery Advertiser, 22 May 2023
What does jury nullification refer to in capital cases?, FIJA.org FAQ
Alabama House Bill 14, 2023 Regular Session