When the United States declared its independence from Britain, they created a new country. The rules for that new country were enshrined in the U.S. Constitution.
Having just come out of a heated revolution, where even the act of dissenting from the crown of England was often criminally prosecuted in the courts, many of the rights that were guaranteed in the U.S. Constitution dealt with the rights of the criminally accused. Among these rights are those encapsulated in the Sixth Amendment, which guarantees a speedy and public trial by an impartial jury. Another is the Eight Amendment, which outlaws punishments that are “cruel and unusual.”
But these rights need to be fought for and, as an unfortunate case out of Alabama highlights, there can be setbacks.
Man Sentenced to Death, Despite Jury Recommendation
In the U.S., there are still 31 states that use the death penalty. Alabama is one of them.
When Ronald B. Smith was convicted of murdering a convenience store clerk by a jury in an Alabama courtroom back in 1994, the prosecutor on the case wanted the death penalty. The jury, however, refused to give it to him, instead recommending life without parole by a 7-5 vote.
The judge on the case, however, overrode the jury's recommendation, sentencing Smith to death.
Smith appealed the decision all the way through the system, throwing the book at the judge's decision. However, the case came to a close when the Supreme Court of the United States refused to grant a last-minute stay of Smith's pending execution to hear his case. Getting five justices to vote to grant a stay proved too difficult, especially with only eight on the bench. Smith was executed on December 8, 2016, by lethal injection.
Other States' Judicial Override Deemed Unconstitutional
Alabama was not the only state to allow judges to override a jury's decision in a capital case. These rules, however, were put in disfavor when the Supreme Court deemed Florida's to be unconstitutional, in violation of the Sixth Amendment's requirement that it be the jury to be the fact-finder in a death sentence.
Alabama, however, decided that the Supreme Court had only meant Florida's rule, not theirs. They refused to change it, despite the fact that Alabama had become the only state to allow judges to override a jury's decision not to issue the death sentence.
Maine Criminal Defense Attorney William T. Bly
The Constitution guarantees you rights if you have been accused of a crime. However, in America's adversarial criminal justice system, the job of law enforcement is to get the most convictions with the longest sentences possible. It is the job of the criminal defense attorney to protect your constitutionally guaranteed rights from being stomped on.
William T. Bly is a stalwart criminal defense attorney in the state of Maine. If you have been accused of a crime and need someone to fight for your rights in court, contact his law office in Biddeford online or at (207) 571-8146.