By Victoria Valenzuela / Original to ScheerPost
On Tuesday May 23, former Alabama Govs. Robert Bentley, a Republican who served from 2011 to 2017, and Don Siegelman, a Democrat who served from 1999 to 2003, published an op-ed in The Washington Post where they jointly declared that Alabama’s death row should be cleared. The pair expressed regret for not taking action to commute death penalty sentences during their time in office and urged current elected officials to do the morally right thing.
With the Death Penalty Information Center’s determination that one in eight people on death row is innocent, Bentley and Siegelman estimate that as many as 20 people could have been wrongfully charged and convicted. They argue these cases are “overwhelmingly the product of police or prosecutorial misconduct or the presentation of knowingly false testimony” and are disproportionately applied to Black defendants.
Alabama has 167 people on death row, a higher number per capita than in any other state — which, according to Bentley and Siegelman, is “167 people too many.”
As former Alabama governors, we have come over time 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 both presided over executions while in office, but if we had known then what we know now about prosecutorial misconduct, we would have exercised our constitutional authority to commute death sentences to life.
The two recognize that Alabama, among the 27 states that have not abolished the death penalty, is no stranger to miscarriages of justice. They specifically mention the troubling case of Walter McMillian, who, in 1993, became the first person known to be exonerated from the state’s death row. McMillian spent six years on the state’s death row and accounts for one of seven death row exonerations in Alabama.
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Siegelman admitted to being personally haunted by the case of Freddie Wright —the 618th person executed in the United States since 1976 and the 21st person executed in Alabama. In 2000, Siegelman could have commuted Wright’s sentence but chose not to. 23 years later, Siegelman still believes Wright was wrongfully charged, prosecuted and convicted for a murder he most likely did not commit.
This op-ed coincides with Alabama’s introduction of new legislation that would require a unanimous jury vote to impose a death sentence. The legislation also suggests that people who are currently on death row but did not have unanimous death verdicts at their trials, would be resentenced to life without parole. According to Siegelman and Bentley, 115 people have been sentenced to the death penalty based on non-unanimous jury verdicts.
Alabama stands as the only state that does not require unanimous jury verdicts to sentence a person to death, and the bill would bring the state’s capital punishment system in line with the rest of the nation.
The remaining 31 individuals on death row were sentenced to capital punishment through judicial overrides. The practice allowed judges to overturn jury verdicts of life without parole and impose the death penalty. However, Alabama discontinued this practice in 2017, although it was not made retroactive.
Siegelman and Bentley ended their op-ed stating:
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.
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.
Following three failed lethal injections last year and failing to disclose the expiration date of the execution drugs, Alabama intends to resume executions this summer.
Victoria Valenzuela is an investigative reporter based in California covering issues in criminal justice. She currently oversees the criminal justice coverage as a reporter at ScheerPost. She is also a fellow with the Law and Justice Journalism Project. In the past, Valenzuela has also worked with ProPublica, BuzzFeed News, and the National Association of Hispanic Journalists. She is completing graduate studies at the University of Southern California, where she also helps teach a class on the power and responsibility of the press.