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Supreme Court declines to hear Alabama death penalty case

People line up for admission at the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington October 1, 2012. REUTERS/Gary Cameron
People line up for admission at the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington October 1, 2012. REUTERS/Gary Cameron

By Lawrence Hurley

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday declined to hear a death penalty case from Alabama even though two of its members recommended that it should.

Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Stephen Breyer both said the court should have considered the case of Mario Dion Woodward, who was sentenced to death in 2008, in spite of a 8-4 jury vote against imposing the death penalty.

The court's refusal to intervene means Woodward will remain on death row.

Alabama is the only state that allows judges to sentence defendants to death on their own authority even if the jury finds otherwise, Sotomayor wrote in an opinion, adding that its sentencing system should be reviewed by the high court.

She attached to her opinion a list of 95 defendants who have been sentenced to death after a jury voted for life imprisonment. Forty-three remain on death row, she said.

In analyzing the trend, she noted that trial judges in Alabama are elected and may have "succumbed to electoral pressures."

One judge who has overridden the jury on six separate occasions ran election advertisements proclaiming his support for capital punishment, Sotomayor added.

She wrote that she has "deep concerns" about whether the practice violates the U.S. Constitution's guarantee of a fair trial and its ban on cruel and unusual punishment.

Of the eight other Supreme Court justices, only Breyer signed on to Sotomayor's opinion.

Woodward, 40, was convicted of the 2006 murder of Keith Houts, a police officer in Montgomery, Alabama. The Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals upheld the sentence in an August 2012 ruling.

The jury had voted against the death penalty after finding that several mitigating factors, including Woodward's relationship with his children, outweighed the arguments in favor of execution.

The case is Woodward v. Alabama, U.S. Supreme Court, No. 13-5380.

(Reporting by Lawrence Hurley; Editing by Howard Goller and David Brunnstrom)

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