November 12, 2020
Alabama resident and former juror
The U.S. Supreme Court Should Not Allow Calvin McMillan to be Executed When the Judge Imposed Death After the Jury Voted for Life
In 2006, I was called to serve as a juror in a death penalty case in Alabama. The evidence showed that the defendant was involved in the murder but that his co-defendant committed the shooting. We convicted him and then had to decide what his sentence should be.
Choosing between a sentence of life or death was not an easy decision for the jury. I knew I could impose the death penalty if I thought it was appropriate, but I went into the case with an open mind because I did not know what to expect. We took the evidence into account, and considered the opportunity he had to rehabilitate himself and seek forgiveness from God. We listened to each other’s arguments for life and death. Eventually, the group of jurors who wanted to impose a life sentence persuaded some of the jurors who wanted death. In the end, the jury voted to recommend a life sentence by seven to five.
After all that time and careful deliberation, the judge overrode our decision and imposed the death penalty. It was a slap in the face that shook my confidence in the criminal justice system. The whole process was a waste of time and taxpayer dollars.
Hundreds of jurors in Alabama and three other states that once had the judicial override rule had similar experiences. We were called to jury duty, conscientiously served on capital trials, and made a recommendation about whether one of our fellow citizens should live or die, only to have the judge throw our hard work out the window.
For example, another Alabama juror served on the 1992 capital trial of Larry Padgett, who was accused of murder. At the guilt phase, she wanted to vote to acquit, but other jurors convinced her to vote for a guilty verdict. During the sentencing phase, she still doubted Mr. Padgett’s guilt and voted for life along with eight other jurors. She was devastated when the trial judge overrode the jury’s recommendation and sentenced Mr. Padgett to death. Like me, she thought the trial and jury deliberations were a waste of time and unfair to the jury and Mr. Padgett.
After Mr. Padgett’s trial, his conviction was reversed because the prosecution had improperly suppressed evidence. Blood was found at the crime scene that didn’t belong to Mr. Padgett or the victim, but this information wasn’t shared with Mr. Padgett’s attorneys or the jury. Mr. Padgett was retried and acquitted. It turns out, the jury was right to have doubts.
Only four states ever allowed judicial override and all four have abandoned it. Even so, 35 people still face execution because a judge imposed a death sentence after a jury voted in favor of life. The entire nation has rejected the practice of judicial override, but that doesn¹t change things for the people who were sentenced to death when it was permitted.
Another Alabama man on death row, Calvin McMillan, is asking the U.S. Supreme Court to accept his case and hold that the execution of a person sentenced to death by judicial override violates the Eighth Amendment. In Mr. McMillan’s case, the jury voted eight to four in favor of a sentence of life without parole. The judge speculated that the jurors were “tired" of the deliberative process, cast doubt on the legitimacy of their vote for life, and sent Mr. McMillan to death row instead.
The faithful work of a jury should not be cast aside cavalierly. Juries are the voice of the community and its values. As important, juries provide a check on the government’s power to take away a citizen’s life and liberty. Nowhere is the jury’s role more important than in a death penalty case when a person’s life is on the line.
Mr. McMillan’s petition to the Supreme Court understandably focuses on the harm that judicial override caused him. But there’s harm to the citizens who serve on juries, too. The legacy of judicial override stamps some juries with a mark of inferiority, as though we are too emotional or incompetent to do our jobs. The Court, which is expected to conference on this question on Nov. 20, should accept Calvin McMillan’s case and make sure he is not executed because a judge imposed death after the jury’s recommendation for life.
Francis Miles resides in Alabama. He submitted a “friend of the court” brief in support of Mr. McMillan’s petition for a writ of certiorari.