Justice Sonia Sotomayor, joined for the most part by Justice Stephen G. Breyer, issued a 17-page dissent of the court’s refusal to hear the case. Alabama now stands alone, she said, in routinely allowing judges to override determinations from capital juries calling for leniency.
The case, Woodward v. Alabama, No. 13-5380, concerned Mario D. Woodward, who was convicted of killing Keith Houts, a police officer. By an 8-to-4 vote, the jury recommended a life sentence without the possibility of parole. The trial judge rejected the recommendation and condemned Mr. Woodward to death.
Alabama law allows judges to override jury recommendations in either direction: from life to death or from death to life. But Alabama judges have overridden recommendations of life 95 times and of death just nine times.
Florida and Delaware also allow overrides, but they are subject to strict standards. No one has been sentenced to death in Florida as a result of a judicial override since 1999, and no one is on death row in Delaware as a consequence of an override.
“What could explain Alabama judges’ distinctive proclivity for imposing death sentences in cases where a jury has already rejected that penalty?” Justice Sotomayor asked. “There is no evidence that criminal activity is more heinous in Alabama than in other states or that Alabama juries are particularly lenient.”
“The only answer that is supported by empirical evidence,” she wrote, “is one that, in my view, casts a cloud of illegitimacy over the criminal justice system: Alabama judges, who are elected in partisan proceedings, appear to have succumbed to electoral pressures.” She cited a study showing that overrides are more common in election years.
The Supreme Court upheld Alabama’s capital-sentencing system in 1995. In a dissent, Justice John Paul Stevens said politics had cast a cloud over the state’s judicial system. “Alabama trial judges face partisan election every six years,” he wrote. “The danger that they will bend to political pressures when pronouncing sentence in highly publicized capital cases is the same danger confronted by judges beholden to King George III.”