By Brian Lyman
Montgomery Advertiser, Ala.
The U.S. Supreme Court Monday declined to hear the appeal of Mario Dion Woodward, who was sentenced to death in the fatal shooting of Montgomery police officer Keith Houts in 2006, but not before Justice Sonia Sotomayor criticized the process that imposed the death penalty.
Montgomery Circuit Judge Truman Hobbs gave Woodward the death penalty in 2008, overriding a jury recommendation that Woodward be given life in prison without parole. In a 17-page dissent, Sotomayor said judicial review of capital murder cases, combined with judges being required to seek re-election, meant Alabama judges could impose the death penalty because of political pressure.
"There is no evidence that criminal activity is more heinous in Alabama than in other states, or that Alabama juries are particularly lenient in weighing aggravating or mitigating circumstances," Sotomayor wrote. "The only answer that is supported by empirical evidence is one that, in my view, casts a cloud of illegitimacy over the criminal justice system: Alabama judges, who are elected in partisan proceedings, appear to have succumbed to electoral pressures."
Alabama law allows judges the right to override jury recommendations, and for the past decade Alabama has been the only state where judges have done so. Hobbs said in an interview Monday evening he did "what the law compelled me to do" in the Woodward case, and denied that politics played a role in his decision to impose the death penalty. However, he did not disagree with Sotomayor's broader point.
"To the extent that she argues that judges shouldn't be forced to run in partisan elections, I couldn't agree with her more," said Hobbs, a Democrat. "To the extent that she says it exposes judges to additional political pressure, I couldn't agree with her more on that."
Woodward, now 39, was convicted of shooting Houts, 30, during a routine traffic stop on Sept. 28, 2006. Houts died in Jackson Hospital a few days later.
The jury in the trial voted 8 to 4 to recommend life without parole for Woodward due to mitigating factors including testimony from family and friends about physical and emotional abuse Woodward suffered as a child. The jury also heard family and friends praise his role as a father to five children.
At a subsequent hearing, however, Montgomery County District Attorney Ellen Brooks noted that Woodward had previously pleaded guilty to manslaughter in the shooting death of a Prattville woman in 1990. Brooks also questioned Woodward's role as a father, saying he had never paid child support or state or federal income taxes.
Hobbs imposed the death penalty, noting Woodward's previous manslaughter conviction in his sentencing order and concluding that Woodward did "the bare minimum for his brood."
The judge said Monday the case was the only time he departed from a jury's recommendation.
"I hope it's the only one I ever have to," he said. "It's traumatic for the juries and the judges."
In her dissent, Sotomayor, joined in part by Associate Justice Stephen Breyer, did not comment on the case, nor did she directly address Hobbs' decision.
Sotomayor cited Alabama judges who imposed the death penalty "without a meaningful explanation for the decision to disregard the jury's verdict," including one who sentenced a defendant with an IQ of 65 to death with the conclusion that '[t]he sociological literature suggests Gypsies intentionally test low on standard IQ tests." That sentence ultimately was reversed.
Brooks said Monday she felt it was "significant" that seven of the nine justices felt that "this was not a good case to review the sentencing scheme."
The Montgomery County DA added that she had "no hard and fast rules" about the imposition of the death penalty, saying each case needed to be considered individually.
"If there ever was a case where death sentence was appropriate, it was this type of case with this type of defense," she said.
Woodward's death sentence was upheld by the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals last year. The Alabama Supreme Court declined to hear it. The U.S. Supreme Court's decision signals the end of Woodward's state appeals. A new round of federal appeals is possible.
The Supreme Court upheld Alabama's judicial review statute in 1995, but Sotomayor wrote that "the time has come for us to reconsider that decision," noting that judicial overrides have become rare in the nation: Since 2000, Sotomayor wrote, 26 of the 27 decisions by a judge to impose the death penalty over a jury's decision have come from Alabama.
Sotomayor said the political considerations introduced the possibility of illegitimacy to the process. Richard Keith, a Montgomery criminal defense attorney who represented Woodward during the 2008 trial, agreed.
"You've got 12 people interpreting the facts to determine life or death, and one other person who makes that decision," he said. "You ought to give deference to jury."
Keith did not specifically say if he thought political considerations weighed in on Hobbs' decision. "I think they play some degree of consideration in any jury override," he said. "You never would know, but judges in Alabama are elected, of course."
Hobbs also said he would not complain if judicial review was taken away.
"Personally, I'd love for them to do away with it," he said. "It would take a lot of the pressure off me."
McClatchy-Tribune News Service
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