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Lawmakers refuse to allow some Alabama death row inmates to be resentenced

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Alabama lawmakers on Wednesday rejected a bill that would provide new sentences for about 30 inmates who were given the death penalty despite a jury's recommendation of life imprisonment. The 2017 overturning of Alabama’s judicial override law occurred following the airing of Alabama Public Radio’s national award-winning prison investigation “…and justice for all.”

The House Judiciary Committee voted 9-4 against the bill that would give life without parole sentences to the death row inmates who were placed there under a now-abolished system that allowed judges to override a jury's recommendation in death penalty cases.

Alabama in 2017 became the last state to end the practice of allowing judges to override a jury's sentence recommendation in death penalty case, but the change was not retroactive. There are about 33 people on Alabama's death row who were sentenced by judicial override, state Rep. Chris England said.

"We all decided that judicial override was wrong, and we repealed that section,” he said. “The only right thing to do, in my opinion, is to afford everybody who was sentenced by judicial override the opportunity to be resentenced,", the sponsor of the bill, told the committee.

In “…and justice for all,” APR listeners met Randall Padgett, who was convicted of killing his ex-wife. His jury decided in favor of a life sentence, but the judge in the case overrode and sentenced Padgett to death. He recalled his first night on death row.

“About midnight, there was two guys talking above me in adjoining cells, I presumed. It sounded like a black guy and a white guy. And finally, the black guy tells the other one ‘let’s sack out, and let’s have a word of prayer.’ So, he said this beautiful prayer, and I thought this might be such a bad place,” says Padgett. “So, the black guy, I guess is trying to get him to end his prayer, and he says ‘let’s have a moment of silence.’ And, the white guy says ‘are you making fun of me, you black S.O.B.?’ and then he starts cussing like a sailor, after saying that beautiful prayer for so long. And, he says “I know where your mama lives and I’m going to have her killed, and I know where you cousin lives and I’m going to have her killed.’ And, I decided this is a bad place.”

During Padgett’s time on death row, Alabama used the electric chair. Lethal injection didn’t begin until 2002. The state never signed a death warrant for Padgett. But, four men he knew at Atmore prison weren’t as lucky. Varnell Weeks was executed in 1995. Padgett called how Weeks’ final hours were marked by a death row tradition. A prison trustee made his way from cell to cell…

“He was collecting a bag full of goodies for Varnell. Like have a party before…candy…people throwing potato chips, candy in there,” says Padgett. “And, I’m thinking, this man don’t want to have no party. They know they’re going to kill him tonight…”

Padgett was set free two years later. “I never figured out whether it was a blunder, an accident, was it on purpose, was it sneaky…I never…I’ve scratched my head on that, and to this day, I have no idea what the reason for it was,” says Padgett’s attorney Richard Jaffe. He’s referring to the botched DNA evidence from Padgett’s original trial. In 1995, the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals ruled the prosecution hid those DNA test results from the defense. A new trial was ordered and that jury found Padgett not guilty.

This current bill to resentence death row inmates convicted before the repeal of the judicial override law was rejected on a party-line vote, with nine Republicans voting against it, and the four Democrats voting for it.

Opponents argued that the inmates were sentenced under state law at the time of their trial and opposed a retroactive change.

"The law that was in effect at the time allowed judicial override. These judges, in their discretion, overrode. Consequently, it's very difficult for me to second guess or in effect override that," Judiciary Committee Chairman Jim Hill said.

Hill, a former judge, said he had a practice of following the jury's recommendation in death penalty cases, but that the law at the time allowed judicial discretion.

England, who has introduced the bill since 2017, said he will try again in 2025. Activists held a rally last month outside the Alabama Statehouse in support of the legislation.

Pat Duggins is news director for Alabama Public Radio.
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