Groups Claim Alabama’s “Judicial Override” Violates Constitution

On March 2, three veterans’ organizations joined The Constitution Project in asking the U.S. Supreme Court to consider the case of Courtney Lockhart, an Iraq war veteran suffering from severe post-traumatic stress disorder currently on Alabama’s death row.  Lockhart was convicted for the 2008 murder of an Auburn University co-ed.  During sentencing, all 12 members of the jury recommended that he serve life in prison without the possibility of parole, but the judge overrode that recommendation and sentenced Lockhart to death instead.

The groups argued in a “friend of the court” brief filed with the Supreme Court that such a judicial override violates Lockhart’s constitutional rights.  “Properly understood, the Sixth Amendment requires that juries make all findings—moral, circumstantial, factual, whatever—that authorize an increased sentence,” the groups said in their brief.

“Permitting judges to unilaterally impose death sentences over a jury’s contrary findings flouts the Sixth Amendment’s basic rationale.  It is difficult to imagine a more flagrant constitutional violation than ‘a single employee of the State’ imposing the ultimate punishment on a person whom a jury has unanimously found ineligible for that punishment,” the groups wrote.

Alabama is the only state in which judges routinely override jury decisions not to impose the death penalty.  In fact, the groups’ brief notes, more than one hundred of the death row inmates in Alabama are there because of a judicial override.

At his trial, the jurors gave careful consideration to Lockhart’s military service and the psychological impact of his intense combat experience.  However, the judge determined Lockhart’s alleged involvement in a string of nearby robberies – information prosecutors elected not to present at trial – and other factors outweighed the circumstances mitigating against capital punishment.

The National Association of Black Veterans, Swords to Plowshares and the Veterans Defense Project joined The Constitution Project in filing the brief.  A comprehensive report on the administration of capital punishment in America released last year by the Death Penalty Committee condemned judicial overrides.

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