Georgia

Georgia

Despite Executions, Death Penalty is in Decline in the "New Georgia"

Although Georgia carried out 5 of the 28 executions in the U.S. in 2015, it imposed no new death sentences and a significantly changed legal landscape points to a "new Georgia" with the death penalty in decline. The Georgia legal publication, Daily Report, dubbed the decline in death sentences its "newsmaker of the year," and explored the reasons for the change. Jerry Word, the division director of the Georgia Capital Defender, said that with the Defender's early intervention initiative reaching out to prosecutors to present reasons to decapitalize a case, prosecutors agreed to drop the death penalty in all 29 of the cases his office handled this year. The only capital case that went to trial with the death penalty as an option was a case in which the defendant represented himself, and the jury handed down life without parole. In 2014, only one of the state's 19 potential capital cases ended in a death sentence and only one of the last 71 capital cases the capital defender has handled has resulted in a death verdict. Several factors have created the new landscape and contributed to the reduction in death sentences. Word said these include the cost of death penalty trials and the efforts by defense counsel to present prosecutors with mitigating evidence early in the process. But, he said, "I think the LWOP [life without parole] is the really big one. We've had that for six years now, but we've really just started seeing the impact in the last few years." Chuck Spahos, executive director of the Prosecuting Attorneys' Council of Georgia, agreed that life without parole had played a significant role: "I certainly think things changed dramatically when the Legislature gave us the life without parole option," he said. Similar factors have contributed to death penalty declines in historically active death penalty states like Texas and Virginia. Sara Totonchi, executive director of the Atlanta-based Southern Center for Human Rights, said "Georgia is in step with the national trend of declining use of the death penalty. The continued marginalization of the death penalty is not surprising given growing concerns about its implementation, particularly with regard to the potential of an innocent person being executed and the prevalence of botched executions as states experiment with lethal injection drugs."

DPIC Releases Year End Report: Historic Declines in Use of Death Penalty in 2015

On December 16, DPIC released its annual report on the latest developments in capital punishment, "The Death Penalty in 2015: Year End Report." The death penalty declined by virtually every measure in 2015. 28 people were executed, the fewest since 1991. Death sentences dropped 33% from last year's historic low, with 49 people being sentenced to death this year. There have now been fewer death sentences imposed in the last decade than in the decade before the U.S. Supreme Court declared existing death penalty laws unconstitutional in 1972. Just six states carried out executions, the fewest since 1988; and three states (Texas, Missouri, and Georgia) accounted for 86% of all executions. For the first time since 1995, the number of people on death row fell below 3,000. Public support for the death penalty also dropped, and the 2015 American Values Survey found that a majority of Americans prefer life without parole to the death penalty as punishment for people convicted of murder. Six people were exonerated from death row this year, bringing the total number of exonerations since 1973 to 156. “The use of the death penalty is becoming increasingly rare and increasingly isolated in the United States. These are not just annual blips in statistics, but reflect a broad change in attitudes about capital punishment across the country,” said Robert Dunham, DPIC's Executive Director. See DPIC's Press ReleaseView a video summarizing the report. (Click image to enlarge.)

Court Decisions Reflect Continuing Ambivalence Towards State Lethal Injection Secrecy Laws

Recent court decisions in cases from Georgia and Arkansas reflect continuing judicial uncertainty regarding lethal injection secrecy. On October 12, an Arkansas trial court overturned the state's execution secrecy law and ordered the state Department of Corrections to disclose the drugs that it intends to use in executions and the source of those drugs. In a December 3 opinion requiring disclosure by the following day, Pulaski County Circuit Court Judge Wendell Griffen wrote, "It is common knowledge that capital punishment is not universally popular. That reality is not a legitimate reason to shield the entities that manufacture, supply, distribute, and sell lethal injection drugs from public knowledge." The next day, the state Supreme Court temporarily stayed Griffen's ruling, asking both sides to submit additional written arguments. On December 9, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit issued a divided ruling in the case of Brian Terrell, denying him a stay of execution but expressing deep concern about execution secrecy. Judges Beverly Martin and Adalberto Jordan said they believed that Georgia's secrecy law created constitutional problems and that the appeals court's earlier rejection of a challenge to secrecy provisions had been wrongly decided. However, they said they were bound by precedent and therefore could not stay Terrell's execution. Judge Martin said, “Of course, I recognize the state’s need to obtain a reliable source for its lethal injection drugs. But there must be a way for Georgia to do this job without depriving Mr. Terrell and other condemned prisoners of any ability to subject the state’s method of execution to meaningful adversarial testing before they are put to death...Indeed, we have no reliable evidence by which to independently evaluate the safety and efficacy of the state of Georgia’s secret drugs. For me, this raises serious due process concerns.” Judge Jordan wrote, "Georgia can certainly choose, as a matter of state law, to keep much of its execution protocol secret, but it cannot hide behind that veil of  secrecy once something has gone demonstrably wrong with the compounded pentobarbital it has procured."

After 3 Trials and Recanted Testimony, Georgia Set to Execute Man Who May Be Innocent

UPDATE: Terrell was denied clemency on Dec. 7 and executed just before 1:00 a.m. on December 9. The Atlanta Journal Constitution reported that it took a nurse an hour to find a vein for the lethal injection IV and that, as the execution drug was being administered, Terrell mouthed the words: "Didn't do it." EARLIER: After three trials, Georgia is set to execute Brian Keith Terrell (pictured) on December 8, unless the Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles grants him clemency in a hearing at which he will present claims that he is innocent. Terrell's lawyers say that no physical evidence links him to the murder and that this conviction and death sentence are a product of prosecutorial misconduct and false and misleading testimony. The key testimony against Terrell came from a witness whom defense investigators say now admits to having lied to save himself. Terrell's first trial ended in a mistrial when jurors could not agree on whether he was guilty. The second resulted in a conviction that was later overturned by the Georgia Supreme Court. The third trial concluded with a conviction and death sentence. Physical evidence from the crime scene leaves substantial questions as to Terrell's guilt: footprints found near the victim's body were smaller than Terrell's feet, and none of the 13 fingerprints found by investigators matched his fingerprints. Terrell was convicted primarily on the testimony of his cousin, Jermaine Johnson, who spent a year in jail facing the threat of the death penalty before he made a deal with prosecutors to testify against Terrell in exchange for a five-year sentence. Johnson has told defense investigators that police and prosecutors pressured him to give false testimony against his cousin. Terrell's lawyers say that prosecutors also presented misleading testimony that a neighbor had said she had seen Terrell at the murder scene, when in fact she had told authorities that he was not the man she had seen. At Terrell's trial, the prosecutor emphasized the importance of Johnson's testimony, saying during his closing statement, "If you never heard anything about Jermaine Johnson in this case, if he had never testified, would you have enough information to make a decision in this case? You wouldn't." 

5 Georgia Executions Emblematic of Systemic Problems With State's Death Penalty

Georgia is scheduled to execute Marcus Johnson (pictured) on November 19 despite ongoing concerns about his innocence. The execution would be Georgia's fifth since December 2014 - each raising serious questions about systemic problems in Georgia's application of the death penalty. In a commentary for The Marshall Project, Sara Totonchi, executive director of the Southern Center for Human Rights, says these cases "are emblematic" of death sentences imposed before Georgia's statewide capital defense office opened in 2005 and "encapsulate what’s wrong with capital punishment in Georgia." In December 2014, Georgia executed Robert Wayne Holsey, whose drunk lawyer failed to investigate and present mitigating evidence that Holsey had an IQ of 70 and had been seriously abused as a child. The lawyer was later imprisoned and disbarred for misconduct in another case. Andrew Brannan, a decorated Vietnam veteran with bi-polar disorder who was declared 100% disabled by the Veterans Administration as a result of combat-related PTSD, was executed in January, the first U.S. execution in 2015. The jury was never heard details of Brannan's military service or disability. Two weeks later, Georgia executed Warren Hill, a man with intellectual disabilities. A judge found that Hill had proven his disability by a "preponderance of the evidence," the standard of proof required by every other death penalty state, but Georgia requires defendants to prove intellectual disability "beyond a reasonable doubt." Even after the state's doctors admitted that Hill met this higher standard, the state and federal courts refused to consider this evidence on technical procedural grounds and Hill was executed. Kelly Gissendaner's execution in September hghlighted a different type of arbitrariness: she was executed for planning to murder her husband, while her boyfriend, who actually committed the killing, made a deal with prosecutors to serve a life sentence and will be eligible for parole in seven years. Finally, Marcus Johnson's case raises concerns that Georgia may be executing an innocent man. The DNA evidence from the murder scene that was tested was inconclusive, other blood evidence was not tested, and none of Johnson's DNA was found on or in the car where the victim's body was found. The trial judge wrote to the Georgia Supreme Court that the evidence in Johnson's case "does not foreclose all doubt respecting the defendant’s guilt."

Supreme Court Hears Argument in Georgia Jury Discrimination Case

The U.S. Supreme Court heard oral argument in Foster v. Chatman on November 2. Timothy Foster, an intellectually limited black teenager charged with killing an elderly white woman, was convicted and sentenced to death in 1987 by an all-white jury after Georgia prosecutors struck every black member of the jury pool. Foster argued that prosecutors impermissibly exercised their strikes on the basis of race, in violation of the Court's 1986 decision in Batson v. Kentucky, to keep African Americans off his jury. Press reports described the Court as having "signaled support" for Foster during the course of the argument, with at least six justices indicating that black jurors had been "improperly singled out and kept off the jury." Justice Elena Kagan called the case as clear a violation of the Court's prohibition against racially discriminatory jury selection "as a court is ever going to see." The prosecution's notes of jury selection, obtained through an open records request nearly 20 years after Foster's trial, showed that prosecutors had highlighted in green the names of every black juror, included all 5 black jurors on the top of a list of 6 "definite no's," and ranked black jurors against one another "in case it comes down to having to pick one of the black jurors." In an op-ed in the New York Times, former deputy U.S. Attorney General Larry D. Thompson said prosecutors "routinely ignore" Batson and exclude black jurors for any number of ostensibly "race neutral" reasons. This is problematic, he says, "because interracial juries make fewer factual errors, deliberate longer and consider a wider variety of perspectives than all-white juries." Studies in nine southern death penalty states have documented "rampant" race discimination in jury selection, Thompson writes. However, "Mr. Foster’s case offers a rare instance of extraordinary and well-documented misconduct." Thompson concludes that "A judicial system that allows for obviously discriminatory jury selection is intolerable. If the court cannot establish discrimination in this case, then the lofty language of Batson rings hollow." 

Spate of Scheduled Executions Highlight Broad Issues in Capital Punishment

An unusually high number of executions are scheduled for late September and early October - five states intend to carry out six executions in nine days. Pieces in the Los Angeles Times and the Washington Post describe the larger issues raised by the cases in this "burst of lethal activity." In the Los Angeles Times, Scott Martelle examined the three executions scheduled for consecutive days in Georgia, Oklahoma, and Virginia, concluding, "So here we have three pending executions: One of a woman who received a harsher penalty than the co-conspirator who committed the murder; one of a man who very possibly is innocent; and one of a man whose intellectual disability should make him ineligible for the death penalty." Mark Berman, of the Washington Post, noted the overall rarity of executions and the small number of states that carry them out. He says "most states have ... not been active participants in the country's capital punishment system" and "executions remain clustered in a small number of states, a dwindling number of locations accounting for an overwhelming majority of lethal injections." Berman notes that the number of executions, the states executing inmates and the number of death sentences have all fallen significantly since the 1990s and the upcoming executions share one common characteristic: "The states planning the executions this week and next — Georgia, Oklahoma, Virginia, Texas and Missouri — are among the country’s most active death-penalty states since the death penalty was reinstated by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1976." 

Former Inmates Plead for Clemency for Kelly Gissendaner, Who Gave Them Hope in Prison

A group of former Georgia prisoners is calling for clemency for Kelly Gissendaner, who is scheduled to be executed on September 29. The women say Gissendaner gave them hope and helped them turn their lives around. Nikki Roberts said she spoke to Gissendaner through a heating vent after Roberts had been placed in "lockdown" for trying to slit her wrists. Gissendaner told her, "Don't wish death on yourself. You sound like you've got some sense." Gissendaner encouraged Roberts to take taching courses and study theology. Roberts joined a choir and became a prayer leader. She was paroled last year and now teaches adult literacy. "Killing Kelly is essentially killing hope. Kelly is the poster child for redemption," Roberts said. Another woman, Nicole Legere, said Gissendaner helped her and many others. "I saw the change in (other inmates) who talked to her. There needs to be people like her, someone to be a mentor. She’s a lot of hope. And there’s not much hope in there." Gissendaner was convicted for her role in facilitating the murder of her husband, based upon the testimony of the actual killer, who received a deal in which he will become eligible for parole. If Gissendaner is executed, she will be the first woman executed in Georgia since 1945 and the only person who did not directly commit the killing to be executed in Georgia since the state reestablished the death penalty in the 1970s.

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