by Sarah Hunger and Meredith Kincaid, Associates at Jones Day. Jones Day represents The National Association of Black Veterans, Swords to Plowshares, Veterans Defense Project, and The Constitution Project in an amicus brief that the authors filed in support of Mr. Lockhart. Mr. Lockhart is represented by Equal Justice Initiative.
In 2010, an Alabama jury voted unanimously to spare the life of Courtney Lockhart, an Iraq war veteran facing the death penalty for a murder he committed while suffering from combat-related mental health issues. Several months later, and upon consideration of evidence never shown to the jury, the elected judge overseeing Mr. Lockhart’s case sentenced him to death.
In Alabama, the jury’s role at capital sentencing is merely advisory, and the imposition of the death penalty hinges upon specific, written findings of fact made by elected judges. Under this regime, Alabama courts are empowered to make these factual findings “based upon information known only to the trial court and not to the jury.” Adhering to this doctrine, Mr. Lockhart’s sentencing judge overrode the jury’s unanimous recommendation of life based upon information never presented to the jury, including evidence deemed inadmissible in a suppression hearing.
In January, Mr. Lockhart filed a petition for certiorari to the Supreme Court arguing that his death sentence, as well as the Alabama regime that authorizes it, violates the Sixth and Eighth Amendments. The Supreme Court’s review of this important and recurring issue is long overdue. In the past decade, at least 28% of death row inmates in Alabama were sentenced via judicial override, and more than 100 inmates now sit on death row because of its use. Nevertheless, the Supreme Court has not reviewed Alabama’s death penalty regime since 1995, well before it announced in Apprendi that the Sixth Amendment precludes judges from making findings that authorize an increase in the maximum punishment.
Most notably, as Mr. Lockhart and amici assert, judicial override as practiced in Alabama deprives defendants of their Sixth Amendment right to trial by jury by making the heightened punishment of death dependent upon judicially found facts. This means, in other words, that Alabama defendants are not eligible for the death penalty until the trial judge makes sufficient findings of fact to support it – a remarkably clear-cut Apprendi violation. Alabama’s death penalty regime, which gives judges the unilateral power to impose death sentences on individuals that juries have voted to spare, should no longer go unchecked. The Court should grant Mr. Lockhart’s pending petition.