Animal Passion, Alabama Death Sentences, and HB 14

Poster depicting 12 jurors and an enlarged switchknife – Public Domain

Unintentionally, in 2006, Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright David Mamet explained how mammoth the stakes will be when the Alabama House of Representatives takes up House Bill 14—Representative Chris England’s latest attempt to reform Alabama’s constantly-in-crisis criminal “justice” system.

In his introduction to the Penguin Classics reissue of “Twelve Angry Men”—screenwriter Reginald Rose’s brilliant study of the American jury system—Mamet wrote, “the jury sets aside its prejudices, to aspire to the highest state of humanity: the capacity to use reason to overcome animal passion.”

House Bill (HB) 14 seeks to ensure the “animal passion” of life sentence-overriding judges—most of whom were, in most instances, looking to score political points—as well as the far-reduced “state of humanity” a non-unanimous jury offers, never undergird death sentences, and ultimately, executions in Alabama; the text of HB 14 says it “would provide that a defendant may be resentenced if a judge sentenced him or her to a sentence other than the jury’s advisory sentence[,] and if his or her death sentence was not unanimous.”

The ACLU explained in a tweet: “House Bill 14 proposes a unanimous vote by a jury [be] required to impose [a] death sentence[,] and provides that an individual may be resentenced if a judge overruled a jury’s original sentence to issue the death penalty. This is an act known as ‘judicial override,’ which Alabama abolished in 2017 (the last state to do so). Now, over 30 individuals remain on death row in Alabama because a judge sentenced them to death despite the jury’s recommendation.”

HB 14 modestly seeks to make an obviously just moral principle the law: If there must be a death penalty in Alabama (a wrongheaded premise subject to devastating attackbeyond the scope of this column), no one should ever be put to death due to the vote of a non-unanimous jury, or, a judge’s dictator-like decision to disregard and override a jury’s considered decision to impose life in prison—instead of death.

“If we’re going to do it, I want to make sure that it’s reserved for the worst of the worst, and it is as hard as you would believe it would be for the state to take someone’s life,” Representative England said.

Giving voice also to this belief, famed death penalty attorney Stephen Bright, former President and Senior Counsel of the Southern Center for Human Rights—on CNN recently to promote his forthcoming new book, “The Fear of Too Much Justice”—unwittingly like Mamet, but also, colorfully and persuasively like Mamet—explained why it is so critical for justice reform in Alabama that Representative England’s reasonable, reform-minded, and most importantly, “just” bill become law.

Concerning Florida Governor Ron DeSantis’s legislation allowing non-unanimous juries to sentence people to death, Bright said: “[W]hat the Florida legislature passed at Governor DeSantis’s insistence was a law that says a jury with a vote of 8-4 can impose the death penalty. No other state has that. In fact, in every other state the jury has to be unanimous. Except Alabama, where it has to be at least ten jurors.”

Highlighting the racial injustice of Florida and Alabama’s death penalty regimes, Bright continued: “When you have a unanimous jury, it means that every person has the same amount of power. Every person has to be heard. When you have non-unanimous juries—when you say you can disregard…jurors…very often [those are the] people of color [that] are on the jury.”

HB 14 seeks to ensure that when Black and brown citizens sit on juries in Alabama, and are forced to decide whether a fellow human being should be put to death or not, their voices are respected. (Mamet wrote, “In the courtroom we see a poor man or woman—perhaps a criminal, perhaps a victim—caught in the awesome engine of the State, and we are told that, for the period of our service, we are the State.”)

Conscientious, justice-loving Alabamians, tired of being the butt of bad jokes around the country, and, even worse, sober and merited criticism internationally, for constant lethal injection “botches” (really, at this point, foreseeably torturous and freakish fumbling by ghoulish prison officials)—literally slicing and sticking condemned men, as Dr. Joel Zivot and I wrote about at the end of last year—HB 14 is the bill for you! Ditto for those of you embarrassed and ashamed by Alabama’s abominable pursuit of nitrogen gassing, as the next state-sanctioned murder-mechanism.

To help Rep. England make HB 14 the law in Alabama—Alabamians, and all other Americans concerned about Alabama’s laws, too—now is the time to make your voices heard. Now is the time to flood the members of Alabama’s House of Representatives with your demand HB 14 be passed. Now.

Stephen Cooper is a former D.C. public defender who worked as an assistant federal public defender in Alabama between 2012 and 2015. He has contributed to numerous magazines and newspapers in the United States and overseas. He writes full-time and lives in Woodland Hills, California.