MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) — Two former Alabama governors, from opposite sides of the political aisle, wrote in an opinion piece that 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.
Former Gov. Don Siegelman, a Democrat, and former Gov. Robert Bentley, a Republican, who both oversaw executions while in office, penned the Tuesday opinion piece for The Washington Post. The governors said that have both 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,” the governor’s wrote.
Bentley and Siegelman each let eight executions go forward while they were in office, according to a list maintained by the Alabama Department of Corrections.
The governors said they are particularly concerned that a large number of the state’s death row population was sentenced to death by either divided juries or over a jury’s recommendation.
Alabama in 2017 became the last state to end the practice of allowing judges to override a jury’s sentence in a capital case and send a person to death row when a jury recommended life imprisonment — a practice that critics argued interjected election-year pressure into sentencing decisions. But the change was not retroactive and did not impact inmates already sentenced to death by judicial override.
“As governors, we had the power to commute the sentences of all those on Alabama’s death row to life in prison. 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,” the two governors wrote.
Only four states out of the 27 that allow the death penalty do not require a unanimous jury to sentence an inmate to death. Alabama allows a death sentence with 10-2 decision in favor of execution. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis last month signed legislation ending that state’s unanimous jury requirement and allowing death sentences when at least eight jurors are in favor. Missouri and Indiana let a judge decide when there is a divided jury.
The governors cited statistics from the Death Penalty Information Center that 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 said would suggest as many as 20 inmates 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 told The Associated Press in a telephone interview Tuesday night.
Siegelman said after reviewing cases that he is now personally haunted by one of the eight executions that happened during his time as governor.
Freddie Wright was put to death in Alabama’s electric chair in 2000 after being convicted of killing a couple during a robbery. Siegelman declined to stop the execution, saying at the time that the “death penalty is appropriate in this case.” Twenty-three years later Siegelman said that he now believes Wright “was wrongfully charged, prosecuted and convicted for a murder he most likely did not commit.”
Siegelman said that he “never felt comfortable with the death penalty” but that his views have evolved over the years, at least partly sparked by his own criminal conviction.
The last Democratic governor in a state now dominated by Republicans, Siegelman was convicted of federal bribery and obstruction of justice charges largely related to his appointment of a campaign donor to a state board. Siegelman, who has maintained his innocence, said he came to see the system as flawed.