Two former Alabama governors from opposite sides of the aisle said they are now troubled by the state’s death penalty system and would commute the sentences of inmates sentenced by judicial override or divided juries.
Don Siegelman, a Democrat, and Robert Bentley, a Republican, co-wrote an opinion piece for the Washington Post.
They said they had come “to see the flaws in our nation’s justice system and to view the state’s death penalty laws in particular as legally and morally troubling.
“We missed our chance to confront the death penalty and have lived to regret it, but it is not too late for today’s elected officials to do the morally right thing.”
According to the Alabama department of corrections, Bentley and Siegelman each let eight executions go forward while in office.
In their Post piece, they cited the Death Penalty Information Center, which says one person on death row has been exonerated for every 8.3 executions.
Applying that exoneration rate to the 167 people on Alabama’s death row, Siegelman told the Associated Press, would suggest as many as 20 could have been wrongfully convicted.
“We all should agree that if the state is going to be in the business of killing people, that we should make sure that we have the right person,” Siegelman said.
Spiegelman said he was haunted by one execution during his time as governor.
Freddie Wright was put to death in the electric chair in 2000, after being convicted of killing a couple during a robbery. Siegelman declined to stop the execution, saying the “death penalty is appropriate in this case”. Twenty-three years later, he said he believes Wright “was wrongfully charged, prosecuted and convicted for a murder he most likely did not commit”.
Siegelman said he “never felt comfortable with the death penalty” but his views have evolved, at least partly sparked by his own criminal conviction.
The last Democratic governor in a state now dominated by Republicans, he was convicted of federal bribery and obstruction of justice charges largely related to his appointment of a donor to a state board. Siegelman, who maintains his innocence, said he came to see the system as flawed.
In the Post, Siegelman and Bentley said they were particularly concerned that a large number of Alabama death row inmates were sentenced by divided juries or over a jury’s recommendation.
In 2017, Alabama became the last state to end the practice of allowing judges to override a jury and sentence a person to death when the jury recommended life imprisonment, a practice critics argued interjected political pressure into sentencing decisions. But the change was not retroactive.
“As governors, we had the power to commute the sentences of all those on Alabama’s death row to life in prison,” Bentley and Siegelman wrote.
“We no longer have that constitutional power, but we feel that careful consideration calls for commuting the sentences of the 146 prisoners who were sentenced by non-unanimous juries or judicial override, and that an independent review unit should be established to examine all capital murder convictions.”
Only four states out of 27 that allow the death penalty do not require a unanimous jury to sentence an inmate to death.
Missouri and Indiana let a judge decide when there is a divided jury. Alabama allows a death sentence with 10-2 decision.
In Florida last month, Ron DeSantis, the governor and prospective Republican presidential candidate, signed legislation ending the unanimous jury requirement and allowing death sentences when at least eight jurors are in favor.