Georgia

Georgia

Furman v. Georgia Reenactment Raises Questions of Arbitrariness

The Georgia State Bar's constitutional symposium recently staged a reenactment of Furman v. Georgia, the U.S. Supreme Court case that led to the temporary suspension of the death penalty in 1972. Stephen Bright (pictured), president of the Southern Center for Human Rights, played the role of Anthony Amsterdam, who argued on behalf of death row inmates in two of the four cases that the Court decided in Furman. The roles of the justices were performed by Georgia Supreme Court Chief Justice Hugh Thompson, Georgia Court of Appeals Chief Judge Herbert Phipps and Judge Beverly Martin of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit. Bright argued that the death penalty violated the Eighth Amendment ban on cruel and unusual punishment because it was applied rarely and randomly. The judges asked about many of the details of Furman's trial, noting that the entire trial took just six hours, and that blacks and Jews were excluded from the jury. The judges in the reenactment did not offer their opinions on the case, but the real Furman v. Georgia resulted in a 5-4 decision to suspend the death penalty, with some in the majority saying it was imposed arbitrarily and others saying the death penalty was unconstitutional in all cases.

NEW VOICES: Former Georgia Warden Discusses Effects of Performing Executions

Dr. Allen Ault, the former warden for Georgia's executions, recently spoke about the lingering psychological effects of carrying out the death penalty. Ault, who retired in 1995, said, "I still have nightmares. [Execution is] the most premeditated form of murder you can possibly imagine and it stays in your psyche forever." He said he felt guilt after the electrocution of a mentally disabled juvenile offender, who developed a deep sense of contrition during his 17 years on death row and whose last words to Ault were "please forgive me." "No one has the right to ask a public servant to take on a life-long sentence of nagging doubt, shame and guilt," Ault said. He also said the death penalty was plagued with racial disparities.

Georgia Man Who Faced Death Sentence Acquitted After 29 Years

Timothy Johnson was acquitted of murder charges and released from prison in Georgia on December 5, twenty-nine years after being charged with a murder and robbery at a convenience store. Johnson had originally pled guilty to the crimes in exchange for the prosecution's agreement not to seek the death penalty. The Georgia Supreme Court overturned his conviction in 2006 because he was not properly informed of his constitutional protection against self-incrimination and his right to confront witnesses against him. The jury deliberated for only about an hour before rendering the acquittal. His family greeted him upon his release. “My heart is overwhelmed for him,” said his uncle, Willie Wilson. “I’m just elated.”

Lethal Injection Challenges Delay Executions in Florida, Missouri, Georgia

Legal challenges to new lethal injection procedures have delayed executions in Florida and Missouri this week. Similar challenges halted executions in Georgia in July. On November 18, the Florida Supreme Court ordered a hearing on the state's new execution protocol and stayed the execution of Askari Muhammad, who had been scheduled for execution on December 3. The hearing will examine "the efficacy of midazolam hydrochloride as an anesthetic in the amount prescribed by Florida's protocol." Florida is the first state to use midazolam in executions, having carried out two executions using this drug in combination with 2 other drugs. In Missouri, a federal judge stayed the execution of Joseph Franklin on November 19, calling the state's execution protocol, "a frustratingly moving target." She said that the Department of Corrections "has not provided any information about the certification, inspection history, infraction history, or other aspects of the compounding pharmacy or of the person compounding the drug." The stay was lifted hours later by a higher court, and Franklin was executed on November 20, though other challenges to the execution process continue. Earlier this year, a Georgia Superior Court judge stayed the execution of Warren Hill, questioning the constitutionality of the law that classified information on execution drugs as "confidential state secrets." 

NEW VOICES: President Carter Calls for Halt to Executions

Former President Jimmy Carter spoke recently about the death penalty in an interview with The Guardian in advance of his appearance at the American Bar Association's symposium on capital punishment in Atlanta on November 12. As governor of Georgia, Carter signed the revised death penalty law that the Supreme Court upheld in Gregg v. Georgia (1976), but he told the paper, "In complete honesty, when I was governor I was not nearly as concerned about the unfairness of the application of the death penalty as I am now. I know much more now. I was looking at it from a much more parochial point of view – I didn’t see the injustice of it as I do now." He said he is particularly concerned about the arbitrariness of death sentences, “In America today, if you have a good attorney you can avoid the death penalty; if you are white you can avoid it; if your victim was a racial minority you can avoid it. But if you are very poor or mentally deficient, or the victim is white, that’s the way you get sentenced to death.” Carter said the Supreme Court should put a hold on executions and reconsider the death penalty: “It’s time for the Supreme Court to look at the totality of the death penalty once again. My preference would be for the court to rule that it is cruel and unusual punishment, which would make it prohibitive under the US constitution.”

Upcoming Events to Review Death Penalty Practice

Two events in November will examine the application of the death penalty from a variety of perspectives. On November 12, the American Bar Association will host the National Symposium on the Modern Death Penalty at the Carter Center in Atlanta, Georgia. The conference will culminate the ABA's eight-year effort to asses the death penalty in various states, using criteria for due process established by the ABA. Former President Jimmy Carter will be a featured speaker at the symposium, along with former Texas Governor Mark White, and other legal experts and law enforcement officials. For more information, click here. On November 9, the Catholic Mobilizing Network will host a one-day conference, Where Justice and Mercy Meet, at the the Catholic University of America's Columbus School of Law in Washington, DC. Prominent  speakers include Sr. Helen Prejean, author of Dead Man Walking, and Vicki Schieber, a national advocate for murder victims’ families. Panelists will discuss how Catholic teaching has evolved on the issue of capital punishment. Click here for more information about the event.

INTELLECTUAL DISABILITY: Determination of Mental Retardation in Florida and Georgia Under Review

On October 21, the U.S. Supreme Court accepted a new case, Hall v. Florida (No. 12-10882), to determine whether the Florida Supreme Court properly upheld the death sentence of a man whose IQ is just above the state's standard for mental retardation. According to the state's law, defendants with an IQ above 70 cannot be considered intellectually disabled, even though most states use a broader definition and there is a margin of error in such IQ tests. Freddie Lee Hall's scores on three IQ tests ranged from 71 to 80. A state judge had previously found Hall to be mentally disabled, but the ruling took place before the state passed a law setting the IQ limit. The case will be argued later in the Supreme Court's term. In Georgia, a House committee will hold an out-of-session meeting to examine the state's strict standard for determining mental retardation in capital cases. Defendants are required to prove intellectual disability beyond a reasonable doubt, the strictest burden of proof in the nation.

SUPREME COURT: High Court Declines to Review Georgia's Unusual Burden for Proving Mental Retardation

On the opening day of the U.S. Supreme Court's new term, the Justices announced they would not review the case of Warren Hill, a death row inmate in Georgia with multiple findings of intellectual disability. Hill petitioned the Court after three mental health experts, who initially said he was not mentally disabled, changed their assessment. The execution of inmates with mental retardation was ruled unconstitutional in 2002, but Georgia has the strictest standard in the nation for proving this mental disability--proof beyond a reasonable doubt. Brian Kammer, a lawyer for Hill, said, “Mr. Hill has been procedurally barred from proving his exemption from capital punishment, which is why he brought his case to the U.S. Supreme Court, in the hopes that the court would ensure that the evidence of his intellectual disability would be heard. It is tragic that our highest court has failed to enforce its own command that persons with mental retardation are categorically ineligible for the death penalty." Hill maintained he has met Georgia's exacting standard because all mental health experts who have tested him concur in his disability.

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