When Courtney Lockhart was tried for murder in Alabama, the jury unanimously recommended a life sentence, but the judge overrode that recommendation and sentenced Lockhart to death. Now he is asking the state Supreme Court to examine Alabama’s unique process of judicial override, NPR reports. Alabama is an outlier. It’s the only state in which judges routinely override jury decisions not to impose the death penalty. Judicial overrides in Alabama account for one-fifth of death row prisoners. Thirty such overrides took place in the 1980s; there were 44 in the 1990s, and there have been 27 since 2000.
The U.S. Supreme Court, beginning in 2000, has said that juries must decide all key questions affecting a defendant’s sentence. The court has specifically applied that concept to death cases. The result is that judicial overrides have all but faded away. Today only Alabama judges still override jury recommendations of life in prison and sentence defendants to death instead. In Florida and Delaware, laws permit judges to adjust jury-recommended sentences, but both states have abolished judicial overrides in practice.