The Alabama Senate ovewhelmingly voted to end the practice of allowing judges to overrule jury sentences in death penalty cases, the Montgomery Advertiser reports. The wide margin of approval came as something of a surprise for a bill that needed a tie-breaking vote to get out of committee on Feb. 8. Alabama is the last state where judges can override sentences imposed by juries. Critics say the practice imposes pressure on judges to impose stiff sentences based on election considerations. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor has said that the override procedure “casts a cloud of illegitimacy” on sentencing decisions.
The Montgomery-based Equal Justice Initiative says that 101 judicial overrides in Alabama from 1978 to 2016 changed a defendant’s sentence from life in prison to death. Eleven changed the sentence from death to life. Twelve of 23 overrides between 2005 and 2015 came in election years. The U.S. Supreme Court struck down Florida’s use of judicial override last year, which left Alabama the only state to continue the practice. The House Judiciary Committee approved a version of the bill ending judicial overrides last week.