From the No One Could Have Anticipated files, here’s retired Alabama judge Ferrill D. McRae explaining the virtues of his state’s law allowing judges to override jury sentencing on capital cases:
If you didn’t have something like that, a jury with no experience in other cases would be making the ultimate decision, based on nothing. The judge has seen many, many cases, not just one.
That seems reasonable, right? A seasoned elder statesman making learned decisions about life and death instead of some bloodthirsty mob that doesn’t know what it’s doing? Eh, not so much…
Since 1976, according to a new report, Alabama judges have rejected sentencing recommendations from capital juries 107 times. In 98 of those cases, or 92 percent of them, judges imposed the death penalty after juries had called for a life sentence.
Judge McRae himself ordered six defendants executed notwithstanding jury verdicts calling for life sentences, more than any other judge in Alabama in the modern history of capital punishment. But he never rejected a jury’s recommendation of death.
Turns out that when he was lamenting the inexperience of juries, he meant that they were too uneducated and naive to recognize when someone deserves to die:
Judge McRae said he had tried to determine, in the words of an Alabama law, whether the crime in question was “especially heinous, atrocious or cruel.” Having seen a lot of cases helped him make that decision, he said. “Juries don’t know,” he said, “what is ‘especially heinous, atrocious or cruel.’ ”
That’s actually kind of remarkable if you think about it: He’s arguing that a jury of people who have never been exposed to all the gruesome documentation of a violent crime would naturally be less likely to view it as “especially heinous, atrocious or cruel” than someone who had seen several of them.
But Judge McRae was not the only wise jurist meting out enlightened death:
Judge Dale Segrest, who retired in 2001, said he had rejected one jury’s recommendation that a white defendant’s life be spared on the ground of racial equality. “If I had not imposed the death sentence, I would have sentenced three black people to death and no white people,” he said at a sentencing hearing in 2000.
Judge Charles C. Partin, who sat in Bay Minette, said the defendant before him was probably not mentally disabled, a factor that may have figured in the jury’s life verdict. “The sociological literature suggests that Gypsies intentionally test low on standard I.Q. tests,” he wrote in a 1990 sentencing order.
So, basically, one person was executed because of some twisted sense of affirmative action, and the other on the basis of a hunch. I’d like to say that that’s not what the Alabama legislature had in mind when they passed the override law, but I think it’s working exactly as planned.
The law may have been disingenuously packaged as a safety valve for mercy, but had that truly been the intent it would have only allowed judges to override death, not life.