It sounds sensible, even merciful: Alabama judges are allowed to override the decisions of capital juries. Justice Thurgood Marshall, a staunch death penalty opponent, was in favor of the system, because it allows "someone who had seen more than one case" to make the ultimate decision, says one retired Mobile judge. But, contrary to what you might think, most judges don't take advantage of the system in order to protect defendants from a potentially vengeful jury—quite the opposite, in fact.
A full 92% of the time the power is used—in 98 out of 107 cases since 1976—judges actually override a life sentence in favor of the death penalty, the New York Times reports. That means more than 20% of Death Row prisoners are there due to overrides, giving Alabama the nation's highest per capita death sentencing rate. It makes sense, Justice John Paul Stevens once wrote, because judges—particularly those who are elected, not appointed—face quite a bit of political pressure; that fact may cause them to want to be seen as tough on crime.