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Alabama Lawmakers Move To Abolish Judicial Override

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In Alabama, a judge can impose a death sentence by overruling a jury's recommendation of life in prison. Alabama is the only state that still allows what's known as judicial override. Now the legislature is posed to - is poised to abolish it, as Gigi Douban of member station WBHM reports.

GIGI DOUBAN, BYLINE: Twenty percent of Alabama death row inmates were put there by judicial override. So that has some asking, does the state trust its juries? Kimble Forrister of the policy group Alabama Arise says right now the answer is no.

KIMBLE FORRISTER: It's kind of outrageous that Alabama doesn't trust a jury of your peers to make the right decision.

DOUBAN: The Alabama Senate has passed one bill. Another is in the State House. Both measures would end judicial override and allow juries the final say in capital cases. State Representative Chris England sponsored the House bill. He spoke at a news conference this week and said it's embarrassing. Alabama is the only state to let judges overrule juries.

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CHRIS ENGLAND: Well, mom used to tell me sometimes being embarrassed sometimes can help you make you do the right thing. But we're at this threshold today, and I'm hopeful that we're actually going to do the right thing.

DOUBAN: Per capita, Alabama sends more people to death row than any other state.

ESTHER BROWN: Alabama is in love with the death penalty.

DOUBAN: That's Esther Brown. She's executive director of Project Hope, a group that wants to abolish Alabama's death penalty. Brown says this legislation is long overdue. Part of the problem, she says - judges are pressured to dole out harsh sentences.

BROWN: They feel that voting for law and order - and we would all like law and order - that means punish them really hard.

DOUBAN: Another criticism - in Alabama, judges are elected, and during election years, the rate of overrides goes up. Dick Brewbaker, who sponsored the Senate judicial override bill, says the numbers speak for themselves.

DICK BREWBAKER: All the research shows that over half of overrides take place in election years.

DOUBAN: In Florida, one of the last holdouts of judicial override, lawmakers ended the practice after the U.S. Supreme Court last year ruled that Florida sentencing guidelines, which are similar to Alabama's, were unconstitutional. Many lawmakers want to end judicial override here so they don't end up in court. For NPR News, I'm Gigi Douban in Birmingham.

(SOUNDBITE OF BONOBO SONG, "CIRRUS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.