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US top court denies challenge to state's death penalty law

The US Supreme Court in Washington, November 6, 2013
The US Supreme Court in Washington, November 6, 2013

Despite dissent from two justices, the US Supreme Court Monday refused to review a state law that allows a judge to impose the death penalty even if the jury rules otherwise.

The country's top court rejected the appeal of Mario Dion Woodward, who was sentenced to death by an Alabama judge after a jury decided, eight votes to four, that he should instead face life in jail without the possibility of parole.

However, progressive justices Sonia Sotomayor and Stephen Breyer said the court should have taken the case.

"Since Alabama adopted its current statute (in 1981), its judges have imposed death sentences on 95 defendants contrary to a jury's verdict," Sotomayor said.

The state is one of three with similar laws, also including Delaware and Florida, but Alabama is the only one to implement it in the last decade.

"Forty-three of these defendants remain on death row today. Because I harbor deep concerns about whether this practice offends the Sixth and Eighth Amendments, I would grant Woodward's petition for certiorari, so that the Court could give this issue the close attention that it deserves," she said.

Woodward, an African American, was found guilty of murdering a police officer in 2006 by a jury that included five African Americans and which recommended life in prison because of extenuating circumstances: Woodward was abused as a child and is himself a father of five, according to documents presented to the court.