Two former governors of Alabama — Robert Bentley, a Republican who served from 2011 to 2017, and Don Siegelman, a Democrat who was in office from 1999 to 2003 — penned an op-ed for The Washington Post this week calling for the state to curtail its use of the death penalty and commute the sentences of dozens of people on death row.
Bentley and Siegelman noted that Alabama currently has 167 people on death row — a higher number than any other U.S. state with the death penalty, on a per capita basis. Most of the people on death row were sentenced to be executed under disturbing circumstances, they said.
“As former Alabama governors, we have come over time to see the flaws in our nation’s justice system and to view the state’s death penalty laws in particular as legally and morally troubling,” the duo wrote. “We both presided over executions while in office, but if we had known then what we know now about prosecutorial misconduct, we would have exercised our constitutional authority to commute death sentences to life.”
Citing data from the Death Penalty Information Center, Bentley and Siegelman noted that one out of nearly every eight individuals in the U.S. sentenced to be executed has been exonerated. “That means we have been getting it wrong about 12 percent of the time,” they wrote, stating that, if applied to the 167 people in Alabama currently sentenced to death, “as many as 20 could have been wrongfully charged and convicted.”
Several of the people who currently sit on death row in Alabama were convicted using non-unanimous juries — meaning that a set of jurors did not reach a unanimous decision on whether to sentence a person to death but state law, at the time, allowed a judge to issue a death sentence regardless. In 2020, the Supreme Court ruled that non-unanimous death penalty decisions were unconstitutional under certain circumstances, but did not overturn the sentences of people who had already been ordered to be executed under those circumstances. (The High Court’s decision also allowed for non-unanimous rulings in certain cases, resulting in Florida reinstating the use of non-unanimous juries earlier this year.)
The state of Alabama is set to kill 115 people convicted of capital crimes even though they were sentenced through non-unanimous juries, Bentley and Siegelman pointed out.
“Alabama was also the last state to ban judicial overrides, a practice whereby judges were able to overrule jury verdicts of life without parole and order death,” they said. The practice of judicial overrides in the state was obviously corrupt — judges overruled juries in 30 percent of cases where the death penalty was an option during reelection years, versus just 7 percent of cases where the death penalty was an option in other years.
Thirty-one Alabamans are still scheduled to be executed after being sentenced under judicial overrides, despite the practice being outlawed in 2017, the two former governors said.
The two also recognized that the death penalty is inherently racist in application. Misconduct by prosecutors — for example, withholding exculpatory evidence from the defense — “most frequently involves Black defendants,” Bentley and Siegelman wrote.
“As governors, we had the power to commute the sentences of all those on Alabama’s death row to life in prison,” Bentley and Sigelman concluded in their op-ed. “We no longer have that constitutional power, but we feel that careful consideration calls for commuting the sentences of the 146 prisoners who were sentenced by non-unanimous juries or judicial override, and that an independent review unit should be established to examine all capital murder convictions.”
While the two former Alabama governors argued in favor of curtailing the death penalty through sentencing reforms and commuting most of the sentences for those already sentenced to death in the state, their calls don’t go far enough, several legal experts have said.
The international community has demanded that the U.S. pursue complete abolition of the death penalty for years. In late 2022, the United Nations condemned the U.S. and other nations for continuing to implement the death penalty in a number of states throughout the country, voting in December by a count of 125 nations in favor (and only 37 opposed) to place a worldwide moratorium on the practice.
“As a country, we pride ourselves on a commitment to human rights and the commitment to the dignity of all individuals,” Robert Dunham, executive director of Death Penalty Information Center (DPIC), told Newsweek at the time. “To be aligned with the actions of” other countries that deny human rights and still execute people “actively repudiates those values.”
In 2021, Attorney General Merrick Garland placed a moratorium on all executions planned at the federal level. But that action didn’t halt executions at the state level, and doesn’t permanently stop the death penalty from being resumed sometime in the future.
During his 2020 presidential campaign, President Joe Biden vowed to put an end to the death penalty once and for all. But so far, he’s taken no action to do so.
“Joe Biden ran for president as an abolitionist,” Austin Sarat, a death penalty expert at Amherst College, wrote last year. “It is time for him to govern as an abolitionist.”
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