Academic journal article Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology

Reforming the Jury Override: Protecting Capital Defendants' Rights by Returning to the System's Original Purpose

Academic journal article Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology

Reforming the Jury Override: Protecting Capital Defendants' Rights by Returning to the System's Original Purpose

Article excerpt


The death penalty has been justified as the "community's judgment... [of] the defendant's outrageous affront to humanity." (1) In Alabama and Florida, (2) the two states that use the so-called "jury override" (3) in capital cases, the ultimate decision of life or death is left to the trial judge, not to the jury, as the best reflection of the "community's judgment." After the guilt phase of the trial, the jury issues only an advisory sentence of life or death, which the trial judge has the authority to override. (4) In Alabama and Florida, judges have used their override power eighty-three and 167 times respectively, to sentence a defendant to death after a jury recommended life. (5) Originally envisioned by the legislatures as a way for judges to safeguard the capital sentencing process by reversing outraged, "inflamed" juries set on imposing death, (6) the data supports a different conclusion: When judges use their override power, they use it to impose death in the vast majority of cases. (7)

The override has been the subject of legal scholarship over the past decade, (8) but recent events make a re-examination of the issue and reform suggestions timely. In June 2002, the U.S. Supreme Court held in Ring v. Arizona that a trial judge alone could not determine the presence of aggravating and mitigating factors for imposing the death penalty without violating the defendant's Sixth Amendment right to a jury trial. (9) The Court held that a jury must make the fact findings required to increase a defendant's sentence. (10) In Arizona, where judges made sentencing decisions alone, Ring struck down the state's capital sentencing law. (11) Scholars maintain there is little difference between the Arizona system and the override as the judge retains the ultimate power for sentencing in both. (12) Yet appellate courts in Alabama and Florida that have reviewed cases brought under Ring have been reluctant to strike down their own laws for fear of "seriously undermining citizens' faith in [their] judicial system[s]." (13) Florida Supreme Court Justice Charles Wells warned that if Ring invalidates the Florida system, most of Florida's death row inmates would have a new basis for challenging their sentences, which would have a "catastrophic effect on the administration of justice." (14)

Fearing the worst, state legislators have introduced bills to reform the override, believing that ultimately the current system will have to change. (15) Thus, with speculation surrounding the override's future, (16) it is appropriate to review long-standing constitutional concerns about the system and to further explore why the state courts are upholding the override, despite the seemingly obvious dictates of Ring.

Equally important, this Comment sets forth reasons why the override should not be completely overhauled, as some have advocated, and why a return to the system's original purpose is needed. (17) The controversial life-to-death override should be abolished, but the death-to-life override, where the trial judge acts as a check on the sentencing process, should be retained. In fact, the Illinois Commission on Capital Punishment recently recommended adopting a variation on the death-to-life override as part of that state's capital sentencing reform process. (18) The "catastrophic effect" of striking down the override laws can be avoided with common-sense reforms that retain many of the safeguards that served as the impetus for the override design. (19)

Part II reviews the history of how the override developed in response to the U.S. Supreme Court's landmark decision in Furman v. Georgia (20) and details the capital sentencing process in Florida and Alabama, the only two states to use the override. Part III explores the various policy rationales for the system, explaining how it was adopted as a check on "inflamed" juries and how the data suggests it is used differently in practice. Part IV reviews constitutional challenges made by defendants who have had jury recommendations of life overridden, including arguments made on Sixth, Eighth and Fourteenth Amendment grounds. …

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