Judicial Notebook

In 2008 in Sarasota, Fla., David Myers brutally shot and killed his ex-girlfriend and her new boyfriend over a real estate dispute. That same year, Courtney Lockhart abducted Lauren Burk from Auburn University in Alabama and fatally shot her when she tried to escape. Both cases went before capital juries, but the cases resulted in very different outcomes. The Florida jury sentenced Myers to death; the Alabama jury sentenced Lockhart to life in prison.

This, however, isn't the end of the story. Although Florida and Alabama grant juries the right to recommend punishment, the trial judge can choose to override the jury's sentencing recommendation. Earlier this year, the judges in both cases used judicial overrides, commuting Myers' sentence to life in prison while enhancing Lockhart's sentence to death.

In death penalty cases, jurors must first determine whether the defendant is guilty. If they find guilt, jurors balance aggravating factors (which make the defendant more death-worthy) against mitigating factors (which favor life) to determine if death is appropriate. In Ring vs. Arizona (2002), the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that a jury, rather than a judge, must make this decision. Ring led many states to revamp their death penalty protocols to make jury recommendations binding. Florida, Alabama and Delaware, however, chose to keep the judge involved in the sentencing decision, even to the point that judges can go against a jury's wishes.

In Florida's death penalty system, the jury recommendation carries "great weight," but is not binding. If a judge overrides a jury recommendation, the judge must provide written reasons for the override. In Delaware, jurors still find aggravating factors, but judges balance aggravators against potential mitigators to determine if death is warranted. In Alabama, judges do not need to give a reason for their override other than, "I felt the defendant deserved death." Alabama judges can also base a sentencing decision on new evidence presented during a pre-sentencing hearing, even if the jury never hears this new evidence. The question thus becomes, what impact might judicial overrides have on the legal system?

Part of the reasoning behind Ring was to give the community a voice in the capital punishment process, yet judicial overrides take the moral reasoning of the jury out of the equation, thereby supplanting defendants' Sixth Amendment right to a jury trial. In addition, there are dangers in the decision-making process if capital jurors are aware that the judge can override their sentencing recommendations. Comparing states that give the jury sole discretion over death sentences (binding states) to states that allow for judicial overrides (hybrid states), researchers from the Capital Jury Project note that hybrid jurors feel less responsibility in capital punishment cases, even experiencing relief that someone else will make the final decision. In addition, jurors who disagree with the majority's sentencing recommendation often express hope that the judge will override the verdict. Further, as research on social loafing shows, turning responsibility over to someone else frees individuals from devoting time and energy to a task. Interviewing death penalty jurors post trial, Capital Jury Project researchers found that hybrid juries spent less time deliberating than their binding peers, showed less understanding of aggravation and mitigation, asked for less clarification from the judge and made fewer requests to look at trial transcripts. Ironically, the only jury instruction on which hybrid jurors showed more understanding than binding jurors was the fact that the judge could override their decisions. As one juror reported, "I don't remember much about [the instructions] other than that the ultimate decision wasn't in our hands, that ours would be a recommendation."

The political ramifications of judicial overrides is troubling, especially in Alabama where life-to-death judicial overrides are common and override regulations are lacking. Research indicates that override decisions that favor death are more likely as the judge nears re-election. Indeed, judges who overturn death sentences are often removed from office in elections, almost necessitating crime-control stances that endorse the death penalty and trial records that show they are tough on crime. Although judicial override has been challenged on constitutional grounds in both Florida and Alabama, the U.S. Supreme Court has yet to weigh in on the validity of this sentencing scheme.


"Judicial Notebook" is a project of APA Div. 9 (Society for the Psychological Study of Social Issues).