For Sen. Hank Sanders, D-Selma, proposals to reform or halt capital punishment have become a yearly ritual, as regular as the decoration of the Capitol Christmas tree. But this year, Sanders hopes to see an actual debate on the question of whether the state should execute people.
“I’ll be asking for a public hearing, early in the session,” Sanders said.
In December, Sanders filed a bill that would ban capital punishment. He also filed a separate bill that would place a moratorium on executions, pending a review by the state.
Three other bills would attempt to bring Alabama in line with most other states on rules regarding mentally handicapped defendants, juvenile offenders and judges’ sentencing powers in capital cases.
None of the bills raised eyebrows in Montgomery. Sanders has proposed each of the measures at least once before; his bills have rarely made it out of committee. But Sanders said the issue is important enough to raise again.
“I believe the death penalty is not only unproductive but counter-productive,” he said. The error rate for capital convictions is high, he said, and there’s no evidence it deters crime.
By almost any count, Alabama is a pro-death-penalty state. Capital punishment critics like Sanders are rare in the Legislature. Gallup polls conducted in 2011 show that upwards of 60 percent of voters in the Southeast support the death penalty.
To some, such as Talladega County District Attorney Steven Giddens, deterrence isn’t really the issue.
“It’s not about that,” he said. “It’s about punishment. The ultimate punishment for the ultimate crime.”
Giddens, who has tried capital cases, said multiple checks and balances exist in the court system to prevent wrongful convictions.
Alabama had 195 inmates on death row as of Wednesday, according to the state Department of Corrections. That’s the fifth-largest death row in the nation, according to the nonprofit Death Penalty Information Center. As of last April, California had 724 people awaiting execution, Florida 407, Texas 308 and Pennsylvania 204.
“Alabama is one of the leaders in both the size of death row and the number of capital convictions per capita,” said Richard Dieter, director of the center.
One reason for that, Dieter said, is that it’s relatively easy to get a capital conviction in Alabama. In most states, a unanimous jury verdict is required for a death penalty. In Alabama, a 10-2 decision can lead to a death sentence. And only in Alabama, Florida and Delaware can a judge override a jury to impose a death sentence.
“When it takes just one person to get a death sentence, a death sentence is more likely than when it takes 12,” Dieter said. He noted that judges in Alabama are elected, a fact that may influence their decisions in capital cases.
Sanders said he’d like to ban that practice, known as “judicial override.” He said he knew each of his five bills would be unlikely to pass this year. But the one banning judicial override is the one with the broadest support, he said.
Sanders said 22 percent of Alabama’s death row inmates are there because of judicial override. Dieter said that when judges go against a jury’s wishes they do so in favor of the tougher penalty two-thirds of the time.
Those estimates came as a surprise to Giddens, the Talladega prosecutor, who said he’d observed exactly the opposite in his days in court. Giddens said that those who think judges give in to election pressure in capital cases aren’t giving those judges enough credit.
“I assure you, they wrestle with it,” he said, noting that a death sentence is a weighty decision.
Use of the death penalty is in decline nationwide, Dieter noted. Eighty-five people were executed in 2000, while just 43 executions were carried out in 2012.
Polls show that public support for the death penalty has declined from its high point in the 1990s. Five states have banned executions entirely in the past five years.
Sanders said he realizes Alabama won’t become the next no-execution state in 2013.
“To be frank, a good percentage of the public supports the death penalty,” he said.
But a public hearing on his proposed ban on executions would spur the state to talk about the issue, he said. If the bill made it to the Senate floor, he said, it would be the first time the issue was discussed by the full Senate in years.
“It hasn’t been debated, not in a long time,” he said.
Capitol & statewide correspondent: 256-294-4193. On Twitter @TLockette_Star.