Willing to be Willing: God Can Work With Bad Choices And A Death Sentence

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In a curious turn, Gordon twice acknowledged that Jackson might not be the killer. That person was Barnes, assuming the testimony can be reconciled, because the evidence from Barnes and Williams is that Barnes had a. Rudolph will be eligible for parole in September, , and Barnes in December, None of them responded to my attempts to speak with them.

Even so, he determined that the aggravating factors outweighed even the ambiguity about who fired the fatal shot. A good capital-defense lawyer establishes a close, mutually informative relationship with the defendant and his family, but Bruner and the Jacksons had no such bond: the first time the Jacksons met their lawyer was at the courthouse, as the trial began. The family felt blindsided by the death sentence because they had never been told that, in Alabama, a judge could override a jury. On July 2, , a week after the Judge released his death order, Jackson returned to the courtroom for the formal sentencing.

The jury box was now empty. Jackson have anything to say in this case why sentence of law should not be imposed against him? Standing before the court, Jackson choked up. Let me live, please, Your Honor.

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The Judge was not swayed. As Gordon condemned him to death, Jackson struggled to absorb what was happening.

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But I knew it was something bad. Judicial override first entered the American legal system in the nineteen-seventies, and was conceived as a way of guarding against the overuse of the death penalty. In , in Furman v.

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The Furman ruling effectively invalidated death-penalty statutes, and executions stopped nationwide. States were allowed to rewrite their death-penalty laws. Today, thirty-two states sanction capital punishment. Can the court overrule that? Nobody in Delaware is on death row because of override, and it has been fifteen years since a Florida judge has exercised override to impose the death penalty. Thirty-six of the nearly two hundred convicts on death row are there because of override. The potential for error in death-penalty cases is known to be so great—according to the National Academy of Sciences, one in twenty-five defendants in America will likely be wrongly convicted—that capital punishment is declining nationwide.

Since the late nineties, the number of executions has dropped by about half. Alabama, meanwhile, has executed twelve men in the past four years, three of them through override. Certain Alabama judges have exercised override repeatedly. Override execution orders have been carried out ten times so far. Among those put to death was Robert Lee Tarver, Jr.

Tarver was convicted largely on the testimony of his co-defendant, who pleaded guilty to lesser charges and received a sentence of twenty-five years. The appeal failed despite an affidavit from the prosecutor admitting that he had illegally struck qualified black people from the jury a longtime problem in Alabama.

In April, , Tarver went to the electric chair, maintaining his innocence until the end. But I would want to make doggone sure you got the right man. The State of Alabama has not always had the right man. In , Walter McMillian, a black pulpwood worker, was accused of killing Ronda Morrison, a white eighteen-year-old dry-cleaning clerk, in Monroeville. The judge, Robert E. Lee Key, Jr. The trial lasted a day and a half. Twelve defense witnesses swore that McMillian was at home on the day of the crime, hosting a fish fry.

There was no physical evidence. The jury recommended life in prison. By the time McMillian was set free, in , he had spent six years on death row. The U. Supreme Court has considered the constitutionality of override several times. In Spaziano v. The override case in question involved Louise Harris, a woman with a lifelong history of trauma and abuse, who had hired someone to kill her husband. The opinion validated the viewpoint of override proponents, who have argued that judges possess experience, expertise, and a dispassionate approach that jurors may lack. The lone dissenter was Justice John Paul Stevens.

Death-row inmates have challenged override through the Fifth Amendment double jeopardy , the Sixth right to a jury , the Eighth cruel and unusual punishment , and the Fourteenth equal protection. All such efforts have failed. In Ring v. Arizona, a case involving the killing of an armored-car guard, the Court held that only a jury can decide if there are aggravating circumstances that warrant the death penalty.

But since then the Supreme Court has not addressed the issue directly, other than to declare that Ring was not retroactive. In , he shot and killed a Montgomery police officer during a traffic stop. Woodward had previously served six years in prison for killing his girlfriend. Judge Truman Hobbs, Jr. Woodward mounted an appeal, but the Court declined to hear the case.

Justices rarely issue opinions when rejecting a petition for writ of certiorari, but this time Sonia Sotomayor and Stephen Breyer did. After Shonelle Jackson learned that he would be executed, he filed jailhouse motions asking for a new trial and new counsel. The lawyer appointed to the case was Bryan Stevenson, the founder and director of the Equal Justice Initiative, a nonprofit organization in Montgomery that represents indigent defendants facing the death penalty. Much of what is known about override originated with studies conducted by E. Stevenson, a Delaware native, moved to Montgomery three decades ago, not long after graduating from Harvard Law School.

Every autumn, he commutes weekly to New York to teach at N. Stevenson considers override to be the most pressing death-penalty issue. Slaves once disembarked at the end of the street, on a broad bend in the Alabama River, to be marched into town and auctioned off at the public fountain. Every six years, Alabama elects circuit judges who hear capital cases and members of the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals and the Alabama Supreme Court.

Judicial overrides tend to spike in and around election years. According to a study by E. Most overrides are upheld. Shonelle Jackson was sentenced to death in the summer of , an election year. An ex-prosecutor named Tracy McCooey ran for his seat. That fall, as judicial-campaign ads appeared throughout Alabama, a TV spot for McCooey aired in Montgomery County, featuring her former boss, the longtime district attorney Ellen Brooks.

Some transactions are less difficult to track, as I learned by reviewing the campaign-finance records of more than a hundred judges. The state allows lawyers to contribute money to the campaigns of judges who may preside over their cases, and they do so routinely. McNeill, a deputy district attorney who some thought would make a good D. The McNeills gave fifty dollars, because Gordon, who was running unopposed, had personally capped contributions at that amount.

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The judges themselves often make donations to candidates who may be in a position to uphold their decisions: between and , nearly forty judges who had practiced override donated money to candidates for the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals, the Alabama Supreme Court, and attorney general. In and , two years for which records are available, Judge Gordon contributed a total of three hundred and fifty dollars to two Alabama Supreme Court candidates. In , he retired and became a private judge; he is sometimes appointed by the state to hear cases.


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Since then, he has contributed more than two thousand dollars to candidates for the Alabama Supreme Court, the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals, and attorney general. The Alabama State Bar Association does not consider campaign contributions by judges and lawyers to be unethical. But Stevenson, of E. Every year since , Hank Sanders, a Democratic state senator from Selma, has introduced legislation calling for death-penalty reforms and for the abolition of override in Alabama. We are a system of man. Man is fallible. The last perfect person to live on this earth, we nailed Him to a cross.

McCooey held the hearing and ruled the statement admissible. Formerly a Mobile County circuit judge, Johnstone had once overridden a jury in a case involving execution-style shootings during a robbery. It was the kind of gruesome crime cited by override proponents. Not long afterward, Johnstone ran for the Supreme Court. Supreme Court, which declined to hear the case. He filed a Rule 32 petition, which, under the Alabama Rules of Criminal Procedure, allows a defendant to return to the trial court and raise new issues of concern.


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In January, , the case came back before McCooey. Before being sworn in as a judge, McCooey prepared for the job by shadowing Gordon for a month. When he writes an opinion, he literally spends weeks and weeks researching, reading, writing. He does not take anything lightly. In , the eyewitness Gerard Burdette died, in a drug-related shooting. Ultimately, all appeals to the state failed. In October, , Jackson and his legal team began appealing through the federal courts.

He petitioned for a writ of habeas corpus, which allows a defendant to argue that a state judgment violated federal or constitutional law. This past May, a federal magistrate recommended denying the petition. The case, which is now before a district-court judge, may one day come before the Eleventh Circuit of the U. Court of Appeals, in Atlanta. Supreme Court. The current governor, Robert J. Bentley, is a Republican who strongly supports the death penalty. Johnstone and I were on the splintery dock of his home, on a river south of Mobile.

Silver-haired and in his early seventies, he had on jeans, sandals, and a T-shirt. Take the fattened calf and slaughter it. Then let us celebrate with a feast, because this son of mine was dead, and has come to life again; he was lost, and has been found. On October 1, , a year-old man was executed in Paris for murdering a police officer during a botched robbery.

Jacques Fesch, the murderer, was a victim of neglect by his parents and the isolation and boredom that can accompany a life of privilege. He was a rake. He lived a restless life, wandering from relationship to relationship and job to job, eventually finding himself the father of an unwanted child in an unhappy marriage. The three years that Jacques spent in solitary confinement, awaiting execution, were a time of conversion and transformation.

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He learned what it meant to love his young daughter and his mother. He found a friend and support in the prison chaplain. His cold indifference to his fate and the world around him—as well as his hostile feelings toward God—gave way to a profound sense of sorrow for his crime and serenity rooted in prayer and faith. Today, Jacques Fesch is being considered as a candidate for canonization. Leaving home is living as though I do not yet have a home and must look far and wide to find one.

This gift of self-knowledge is, above all else, a lesson in humility—a simple and unimpeded view of ourselves as we are before God. Humility empowers us to leave behind the illusion of our self-sufficiency and self-love so that we can return home to the Father when we have wandered away. The lesson for us this Sunday is that God is ever-patient and always willing to welcome us home, regardless of what we might have done or of how far we have strayed. This is the reason for our joy on this Laetare Sunday. How does the story of Jacques Fesch challenge your ideas of justice and mercy?

What is the Parable of the Prodigal Son inviting you to do in these final weeks of Lent? I shall ask him to make you so open and supple that you will be able to understand and do what he wants you to do. Your life is nothing; it is not even your own. You have to put to death everything within you except the desire to love God. This is not at all hard to do. It is enough to have confidence and to thank the little Jesus for all the potentialities he has placed within you. Our team proves its mission every day by providing high-quality content that informs and inspires a Christian life.

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