SECTION 1 - COLQUITT
NOTE: The following report on Alabama's capital punishment scheme was published in the Alabama Law Review more than fifteen years ago. Some law and procedures have changed, but this account of the developments during the rapid change of the 1970s should serve to acquaint you with the Alabama's capital punishment scheme. For our discussion purposes, these excerpts from the law review article continues to succinctly and adequately describe the system that has existed in Alabama in several forms since 1975. Important changes in that scheme will be noted as we briefly focus on the death penalty generally and Alabama's capital punishment laws in particular.
The Death Penalty Laws of Alabama
Joseph A. Colquitt
33 ALA. L. REV. 213 (1982)
© ALABAMA LAW REVIEW
In Furman v. Georgia, a 1972 decision, the United States Supreme Court held in a five-to-four per curiam opinion that imposition of the death penalty in the cases before the Court constituted cruel and unusual punishment in violation of the eighth and fourteenth amendments to the United States Constitution. The Court also vacated decisions in several Alabama cases in which the death penalty had been imposed. In response, the Alabama Supreme Court held that Furman had eliminated the death penalty as a permissible punishment for certain criminal offenses governed by existing statutes. In 1975, the Alabama Legislature enacted a new capital punishment law that borrowed heavily from the Model Penal Code.
On July 2, 1976, the United States Supreme Court reviewed the post-Furman capital punishment statutes of five states in a series of five cases: Gregg v. Georgia, Profitt v. Florida, Jurek v. Texas, Woodson v. North Carolina, and Roberts v. Louisiana. These five cases are sometimes referred to as the "1976 Quintuplet Offspring" of Furman. In these cases the Court found the death penalty statutes of Georgia, Florida, and Texas constitutional on their face, but struck down the capital punishment schemes of North Carolina and Louisiana. In its plurality opinion in Woodson, the Supreme Court held that the mandatory nature of the North Carolina statute violated the eighth and fourteenth amendments, that the statute provided no standards to guide the jury in determining when to apply this punishment, and that it failed to require consideration of the defendant's character and the circumstances of the crime. According to the plurality opinion in Roberts, the Louisiana death penalty statute failed to pass constitutional muster because of its mandatory nature and its requirement that the trial court instruct the jury on lesser homicide charges even if the judge could find no evidence to support a guilty verdict on these charges.
The conclusion to be drawn from the quintet of Gregg, Profitt, Jurek, Woodson, and Roberts might be summarily stated as follows: The sentencing authority in a capital case cannot possess the unguided, unbridled discretion previously found impermissible in Furman. Although the sentencing authority must be given some discretion, the discretion must be directed and limited to minimize the potential for arbitrary and capricious action. These cases do not mandate a specific statutory scheme. Some authorities suggest however, that since acquiescence of at least one member of the Stewart-Powell-Stevens plurality in Gregg, Jurek, and Profitt proved essential to the validity of these challenged death penalty statutes, the following statutory safeguards should guide drafters in structuring a constitutional scheme.
1. The punishment cannot be invariably disproportionate to the crime. Applying this principle in Coker v. Georgia, the Court held that the death penalty was grossly disproportionate to the crime of rape of an adult woman.
2. The statute should be carefully drafted to ensure adequate information and guidance to the sentencing authority. For example, the Court struck down the death penalty statute in Lockett v. Ohio because it improperly limited the range of mitigating circumstances available for consideration.
3. A bifurcated proceeding, which separates the question of guilt or innocence from sentencing, is preferable to a single hearing that addresses both issues.
4. The statute should provide standards to give the sentencing authority specific, detailed guidance in applying the available information.
5. The scheme should cause the sentencing authority to focus on the particularized nature of the crime and the individual offender.
6. Appellate review by a court of statewide jurisdiction should be available. Although Georgia's scheme of proportionality review may not be required, the system must guard against sentences wantonly or capriciously imposed.
In 1980 the United States Supreme Court reviewed Alabama's 1975 Act in Beck v. Alabama. The Court found portions of the Act unconstitutional because it precluded juries from considering lesser included, noncapital offenses in cases in which the evidence would have supported a guilty verdict on a lesser included offense. On remand the Alabama Supreme Court excised the objectionable preclusion clause and promulgated procedures for the trifurcation of a capital trial to include the jury in the sentencing aspect of the trial. With the procedural changes established by Beck, the trial of a post-Beck capital case differs significantly from a pre-Beck trial.
In response to the Supreme Court holding in Beck v. Alabama, the Alabama Legislature passed a new Death Penalty Act in 1981. Although the 1975 and 1981 Acts bear some resemblance to each other on the surface, they are significantly and fundamentally different.
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XI. SUMMARY AND CONCLUSIONS
This Article has reviewed the Alabama capital punishment laws from the 1975 Act to [1981 - the date of enactment of the current statute]. To draw meaningful conclusions from past capital punishment litigation is difficult; to predict the outcome of future cases is virtually impossible. State legislatures attempting to draft a death penalty scheme or to modify existing death penalty legislation have often turned to the United States Supreme Court's decision on Furman v. Georgia for guidance. The court's decision in Furman, however, was a per curiam opinion in which five justices filed separate opinions supporting the decision and four justices, including the Chief Justice, filed separate dissenting opinions. Attempts by state legislatures to enact statutes meeting the Furman requirements have to date resulted in three successes and at least eight failures. The results of Furman's "ambiguous directives" have been described as a "legal quagmire." By the Supreme Court's own admission, "the variety of opinions supporting the judgment in Furman engendered confusion as to what was required in order to impose the death penalty in accord with the Eighth Amendment."
Blind reliance upon those Supreme Court cases upholding the statutory capital punishment schemes of Georgia, Florida, and Texas will eventually result in frustration. Although the Court held those schemes constitutional, none of the statutes is thorough in its treatment of the procedural aspects of capital punishment litigation, which is now the focal point of capital cases. Although the statutes in question have been held constitutional, later cases have been reversed on new issues such as the statutory test of qualification for jurors' beliefs about capital punishment, the availability of the death penalty for the crime of rape of an adult woman, failure to disclose contents of presentence reports, adoption of overly broad definitions of statutory terms, exclusion of "reliable hearsay" during the sentencing stage, and denial of evidentiary hearings on constitutional issues.
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