Academic journal article Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology

Eighth Amendment - the Constitutionality of the Alabama Capital Sentencing Scheme

Academic journal article Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology

Eighth Amendment - the Constitutionality of the Alabama Capital Sentencing Scheme

Article excerpt

INTRODUCTION

In Harns v. Alabama, the United States Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of the Alabama capital sentencing scheme.(1) Chief among the provisions of the sentencing scheme is that the jury issues an advisory sentence which the sentencing judge must consider in imposing a sentence. Although the provision does not specify the weight a judge must give to the jury's advisory verdict,(2) the majority concluded that this provision does not violate the Eighth Amendment since it does not result in arbitrary or capricious sentences.(3)

This Note concludes that, contrary to the majority's assertions, Alabama's scheme violates the Eighth Amendment since it results in arbitrary and capricious sentences. This Note examines Alabama's scheme in light of (1) statements made by the Court in earlier death penalty cases regarding the constitutional requirements imposed by the Eighth Amendment, (2) sentencing processes in general, and (3) the consequences of Alabama's scheme. This Note argues that the standards imposed by the Eighth Amendment as interpreted by the Court mandate a scheme that provides more guidance to the sentencer than the Alabama scheme. This necessity, recognized in previous holdings and statements in dicta issued by the Court, is evident given the fact that a certain amount of arbitrariness already exists in any sentencing procedure as a result of the incalculable number of outside factors that can effect a judge's sentence. This Note further maintains that an examination of the differing standards employed by the Alabama trial court judges in their sentencing opinions is direct evidence of the arbitrary results of the Alabama sentencing scheme. Although the Court is not responsible for providing this guidance, the Court must serve as a watchdog to ensure that the individual states do provide it. Finally, this Note argues that the majority opinion avoided a thorough examination of precedent and of the realities of sentencing in Alabama by simply concluding that the Court does not have the power to legislate.

II. BACKGROUND

A. THE ALABAMA SENTENCING SCHEME IN CAPITAL MURDER CASES

The Alabama capital sentencing scheme is set forth in the Alabama Code.(4) The Code provides that defendants convicted of capital murder are entitled to a sentencing hearing before the trial jury.(5) At the sentencing hearing, the state must disprove, by a preponderance of the evidence, any mitigating factors proffered by the defendant, and the state must prove any statutory aggravating factors beyond a reasonable doubt.(6) The jury then evaluates the evidence. If ten of the twelve jurors agree that the aggravating circumstances outweigh the mitigating circumstances, the jury recommends a death sentence; otherwise, the jury recommends life imprisonment with no possibility of parole.(7)

The jury's recommended sentence and the jury's vote tally is then reported to the judge,(8) whereupon the judge is required to "consider" the jury's advisory sentence along with all of the evidence available.(9) The judge must then issue a written sentence which describes the defendant's crime and details the aggravating and mitigating circumstances.(10) Finally, the judge must impose a sentence.(11) The statute also provides for a mandatory appellate process if the defendant is sentenced to death.(12)

B. CONSTITUTIONAL PROTECTIONS AND THE DEATH PENALTY

The Eighth Amendment to the Constitution protects against cruel and unusual punishment.(13) This Eighth Amendment protection has been held applicable to the states by its incorporation into the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.(14) The Supreme Court, in setting forth the goals of the Eighth Amendment, has stated that the "primary principle is that a punishment must not be so severe as to be degrading to the dignity of human beings."(15)

The Eighth Amendment, prior to 1972, was never successfully used to challenge a capital punishment statute. …

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