Death Penalty: Yes
Cotton Field. Photo by Lisa Safstrom.
Georgia has employed capital punishment since colonial times, with executions recorded at least as early as 1735. Crimes punishable by capital punishment in Georgia have historically included murder, robbery, rape, horse stealing, and aiding a runaway slave. Up until the 1920s executions were generally carried out by hanging, although the condemned were sometimes executed by firing squad and at least two were burned at the stake. The first Georgia execution to utilize the electric chair was carried out in 1924. Electrocution quickly supplanted hanging as the state's primary execution method, although hanging was still used intermittently until 1931. Electrocution remained the primary method of execution until October 5th, 2001 when the Georgia Supreme Court declared the practice unconstitutional as cruel and unusual punishment, after which Georgia converted to using lethal injection. Before 1976, Georgia carried out 950 executions, the fourth-highest number of any state.
Furman v. Georgia (1972): William Furman was caught by homeowner William Micke while attempting to burgle Micke's home. In his escape attempt Furman claims that he fired his gun blindly behind him and accidentally killed Micke. Furman was convicted of felony murder largely on the basis of his own statement to police, and subsequently sentenced to death. Furman's lawyers appealed all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court after the highest courts in Georgia upheld the conviction. In 9 separate opinions, and by a vote of 5 to 4, the Court held that Georgia's death penalty statute, which gave the jury nearly complete sentencing discretion, could result in arbitrary sentencing. The Court held that the scheme of punishment under the statute was therefore "cruel and unusual" and violated the Eighth Amendment. Thus, on June 29, 1972, the Supreme Court effectively voided 40 death penalty statutes, thereby commuting the sentences of 629 death row inmates around the country and suspending the death penalty throughout the United States because existing statutes were no longer valid. Furman remained in prison until he was paroled in 1984. He was again convicted of burglary in 2004 and sentenced to twenty years in prison.
Gregg v. Georgia (1976): While two of the justices in Furman v. Georgia wrote opinions declaring the death penalty itself unconstitutional, the narrower opinion of Justice Potter Stewart declared only the death penalty statutes of the states unconstitutional because they allowed too much discretion for juries to deliver arbitrary death sentences. This legal reasoning left open the possibility for states to rewrite their capital sentencing statutes to establish a more uniform and less capricious death penalty procedure. Many states quickly rewrote their death penalty statutes to conform to the rules set down by the Supreme Court, and the first five cases to reach the nation's highest court are referred to collectively as Gregg v. Georgia, named for Troy Leon Gregg, the first man in Georgia to be convicted under the new statute. In a 7-2 decision, the Supreme Court upheld the new capital punishment statutes of Georgia, Texas, and Florida because they provided sufficient guidance to the jury and required the state to prove beyond a reasonable doubt the existence of at least one aggravating factor to the crime. In the same case the Supreme Court struck down the new capital statutes of North Carolina and Louisiana because the statutes called for mandatory death sentences for defendants convicted of capital murder.
Although Gregg's conviction and sentence had been upheld, his execution would never be carried out. The night before his scheduled execution Gregg and four other condemned inmates sawed through their prison bars and walked out of Georgia State Prison wearing homemade prison guard uniforms. They escaped in a car left for them in the parking lot by an accomplice. Gregg's three fellow escapees were caught three days later, but Gregg himself was found floating in a lake after being killed in a bar fight.
Coker v. Georgia (1977): In 1974, Ehrlich Coker escaped from prison while serving a sentence for several charges including murder, kidnapping, and rape. After his escape, he broke into the home of a married couple, proceeded to rape the wife (who he released shortly after), and then stole the family car. He was convicted of rape and sentenced to death, as the jury found evidence of aggravating factors, including a prior felony record, and that the rape was committed in the course of another felony (armed robbery). Coker challenged the sentence as unconstitutional under the 8th Amendment's prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment, and the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear his case. In a 7-2 decision the U.S. Supreme Court struck down Georgia's provision for capital punishment as a penalty for rape, noting that a penalty of death for a crime in which the victim did not perish was "grossly disproportional," and thus unconstitutional. In the plurality opinion Justice White wrote, "Rape is without doubt deserving of serious punishment; but in terms of moral depravity and of injury to the person and to the public, it does not compare with murder, which does involve the unjustified taking of human life." At the time of the ruling, Georgia was the only state maintaining the death penalty for the crime of rape of an adult.
Troy Davis was executed on September 21, 2011 for the murder of Marc MacPhail, an off-duty police officer, in 1989. Davis was granted three stays of execution prior to his final bid for clemency, which the Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles denied the day before his final scheduled execution date despite claims of innocence. Seven of the nine eyewitnesses involved in Davis's trial recanted their testimony, and one of the two eyewitnesses who didn't recant would have been the primary suspect in the case if he had. Davis attracted national and international attention, including pleas from former President Jimmy Carter, Pope Benedict XVI, former FBI Chief William Sessions and former Georgia Supreme Court Chief Justice Norman Fletcher. The controversy surrounding this case sparked debate over new eyewitness testimony procedures which could decrease chances of wrongful convictions.
In 1991, Gary Nelson walked out of Chatham County Jail a free man. He had been convicted and sentenced to death in 1980 for the 1978 rape and murder of a six-year-old girl. On his third appeal to the Georgia Supreme Court, the Court overturned his conviction and his death sentence on the grounds that his original trial had not been fair because the prosecution had withheld evidence from his defense. The county prosecutors abandoned the case for lack of evidence, stating that "There is no material element of the state's case in the original trial which has not subsequently been determined to be impeached or contradicted." Nelson had spent 11 years on Georgia's death row before he was finally freed.
Georgia has had 4 other exonerations:
In 2008, Samuel David Crowe was granted clemency by Gov. Sonny Perdue. The decision came just two hours before his scheduled execution. The Board of Pardons and Paroles did not provide a reason for commuting Crowe’s sentence to life without parole. However, considerable testimony from friends, pastors and even a former corrections officer was presented to the board emphasizing his exemplary behavior and deep remorse while on death row.
In 1990, the Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles unanimously granted clemency to Billy Neal Moore. Moore had been sentenced to death for the murder of a 77-year-old man in 1974. While in prison, Moore had a spiritual conversion and developed a close relationship with the victim's family. At Moore's clemency hearing, his victim's niece said, “This is our brother Billy and you can’t kill him. We’ve lost one family member and we’re not going to lose another. We don’t want you to execute him.” Moore was later released from prison and became a prison chaplain and noted speaker against the death penalty.
New Hope House - a resource for families of death row inmates
The Open Door Community - a residential community that provides prison ministry and includes coverage of death penalty issues in their monthly newsletter