Landmark Case

Beck v. Alabama

Case Number


"Kill 'em or let 'em go"
Gilbert Beck was arrested and tried for murder during the course of a robbery in 1977. At trial, he admitted to robbery, but denied murder. Testimony reflected that he did not kill the victim.

But under Alabama's unique "kill 'em or let 'em go" death penalty statute, juries were given only two choices: vote to convict and trigger an automatic death sentence, or vote to acquit and let the defendant go free. Beck was convicted of capital murder and sentenced to die.

The Center appealed Beck's conviction, but the Alabama courts upheld the conviction and the statute. The United States Supreme Court disagreed.

The Supreme Court said that failure to allow the jury to find Beck guilty of something less serious than capital murder, such as manslaughter or first-degree murder, created the risk that the jury would convict simply to avoid letting the defendant go free.

"Such a risk cannot be tolerated in a case in which the defendant's life is at stake," the Court stated. The high Court's decision vacated the convictions of Beck and 10 other men on death row.