The New Yorker examines an Alabama criminal justice practice known as the “judicial overrides,” in which judges reject a jury’s sentence of life in prison and instead condemn the felon to execution. The story features Shonelle Jackson, convicted of murder in Montgomery as a teenager in 1997. Circuit Judge William Gordon sentenced him to die, overriding a jury recommendation of life without parole. Jackson is awaiting execution.
Only Alabama, Florida and Delaware permit such overrides, conceived to guard against the overuse of the death penalty. Nobody in Delaware is on death row because of override, and it has been 15 years since a Florida judge has exercised override to impose the death penalty. But nearly 70 Alabama judges have single-handedly ordered an inmate's execution. Many suggest that politics plays a role since Alabama judges are elected. Asked to explain his override in the Jackson case, Judge Gordon, now retired, said, “You can't put everybody in the penitentiary. You just can't.” He added, “Sometimes you just have to put 'em down.”