U.S. Supreme Court tells Alabama appeals court to reconsider death penalty

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U.S. Supreme Court

WASHINGTON, D.C. (WHNT) — The U.S. Supreme Court has directed that an Alabama appeals court reconsider a death penalty case in light of its January 2016 ruling that found Florida’s death penalty system is unconstitutional.

That ruling in Hurst vs. Florida, faulted Florida for letting a judge, not a jury, determine the punishment. The court found that system unconstitutional.

Today, the high court directed the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals to reconsider the death sentence for Bart Johnson, who was convicted in 2011 of killing a Pelham Police Department officer in 2009.  The court’s order said the appeals court should consider the case, “in light of Hurst vs. Florida.”

Alabama’s death penalty system is very similar to Florida’s. Today’s order could have far-reaching implications for the state’s death penalty system.

The Alabama Attorney General’s office has argued the Florida ruling doesn’t apply to Alabama since a jury – even if it recommends against a death sentence – has to find an aggravating factor in order to convict a defendant of capital murder.

Under Alabama’s death penalty system the same jury that convicts someone of capital murder is then asked to consider aggravating and mitigating factors in determining if the death penalty or life in prison without parole is the right sentence.

Alabama law requires 10 out of 12 jurors for a death penalty recommendation. But either way, the judge gets the final say on sentencing and can overrule the jury’s recommendation.

Ten of 12 jurors in the Johnson case recommended the death penalty and the judge agreed.