“[W]e 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,” wrote two former governors of Alabama in an op-ed for the Washington Post. Republican Robert Bentley (pictured, right) and Democrat Don Siegelman (pictured, left) agree that the 146 people whose death sentences were imposed by non-unanimous juries or judicial override should have their sentences commuted. “We missed our chance to confront the death penalty and have lived to regret it,” they wrote, “but it is not too late for today’s elected officials to do the morally right thing.”

In support of their recommendation, the authors acknowledged the racist underpinnings of non-unanimous verdicts as a Jim Crow practice dating from the 1870s. Alabama had been the only state to allow a person to be sentenced to death by this legal relic. They noted 115 people were sentenced to die by non-unanimous jury verdicts, and an additional 31 people were sentenced to death by judges who overrode jury recommendations for life. The authors cited research by the Equal Justice Initiative that indicates judicial overrides may have been influenced by judges’ political concerns. Judicial overrides made up “7 percent of death sentences in a nonelection year but rose to 30 percent when Alabama judges ran for reelection.”

The former governors recommend that the 146 people sentenced under the outlier practices of non-unanimity and judicial override receive reduced sentences, “and that an independent review unit should be established to examine all capital murder convictions.”  

The governors also discuss the link between official misconduct and wrongful convictions, pointing to the exoneration of Walter McMillian, as well as the cases of two men on death row who may be innocent and whose sentences involved both misconduct and outlier sentencing practices. Toforest Johnson was sentenced to death by a non-unanimous jury after prosecutors withheld evidence that the key witness against Johnson received a secret $5000 reward. Rocky Myers, “was never connected to the murder scene, and even though the jury recommended life without parole, the judge overrode the recommendation and ordered his execution.” Siegelman also wrote that he is “personally haunted” by his decision to allow the execution of Freddie Wright in 2000, because he now believes Wright is innocent.

During the 2023 legislative session, Rep. Chris England (D - Tuscaloosa) proposed a bill to allow the death penalty only when a jury unanimously recommends it. Under existing law, a death sentence can be imposed if at least 10 jurors recommend death. The bill would retroactively reduced the death sentences of the 146 people discussed in the op-ed - those whose death sentences were non-unanimous, and those who were sentenced under judicial override. At a May 24, 2023 hearing on the bill, Mae Puckett, who served as a juror in the trial of Rocky Myers, said, “What was the point of us ever being there if we weren’t going to matter? Why did we have to sit and listen to these horrible things? And see those pictures that we had to see? He was accused of stabbing a woman to death. I don’t understand why we had to go through that for this man to have just turned around and say, ‘No, it doesn’t matter, I know what we need to do.’ And this man has been on death row for 25 years.” The bill did not receive a vote before time ran out for it to be considered this legislative session.


Robert Bentley and Don Siegelman, We over­saw exe­cu­tions as gov­er­nor. We regret it., Washington Post, May 23, 2023; Mike Cason, Clock runs out on Alabama bill to require unan­i­mous jury for death penal­ty, AL​.com, May 252023.