After Richmond County’s most recent execution – Mark McClain in 2009 – Augusta District Attorney Ashley Wright noticed a trend taking shape in capital murder trials.
“Our juries are reserving the death penalty only for those cases which are the most hideous,” said Wright, who is encountering juries more willing to sentence convicted killers to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
With a national movement to abolish capital punishment spreading across the United States, enthusiasm for the death penalty is on the decline.
In May, Maryland became the 18th state – and the first south of the Mason-Dixon Line – to repeal death-penalty laws. Since 2007, five states have abolished the death penalty, and last year, 43 prisoners were executed, down from 98 in 1999.
In Georgia, the trend is much the same. For the third time this century – and the first time in five years – the state had no executions in 2012.
Tonight, the state plans its second execution this year. Warren Hill, 52, was sentenced to death for fatally beating an inmate in 1990 while serving a life sentence for killing his girlfriend. His lawyers argue that Hill is mentally disabled and therefore shouldn’t be put to death because of state law and a 2002 U.S. Supreme Court decision.
The first Georgia execution in 2013 was Andrew Allen Cook, a 38-year-old inmate put to death in February for killing two Mercer University students in 1995 at Lake Juliette, about 75 miles south of Atlanta.
More than 15 years after Robert Wayne Holsey was convicted of murdering a Baldwin County sheriff’s deputy, Fred Bright, the district attorney of central Georgia’s Ocmulgee Judicial Circuit, received an execution order last month that’s becoming a rare sight in prosecutor offices statewide.
On June 10, the U.S. Supreme Court denied Holsey’s ninth and final petition to be removed from death row, clearing the way for his execution, possibly by early fall.
“It’s more difficult this day in age to get the death penalty,” said Bright, the outgoing chairman of Georgia’s Prosecuting Attorneys’ Council. “There’s just more hurdles.”
An analysis compiled in January by the Department of Corrections shows capital punishment in Georgia is not what it was in the early 20th century.
On average, a dozen people were executed each year between 1926 and 1956. Before that, executions were public spectacles in Georgia; the state recorded more than 500 legal hangings between 1725 and 1925.
Today, the electric chair has been put to rest and lethal injection isn’t thought to be as painless and humane as lawmakers were told it was at its inception in 2001.
Prosecutors are choosing life sentences to more quickly provide victims’ families closure in state court systems that they say are riddled with delays and overworked capital defense lawyers.
Bright said that after he became district attorney in 1994, his office averaged two “knockdown, drag-out” death penalty trials for six years. Since then, the district has tried only one capital murder case, and today it has only one death penalty trial pending.
“It does not surprise me that the numbers are dwindling,” Bright said. “I’d like to think that taking a tough line on murder cases might have deterred some criminals, but the fact of the matter is you do not have as many death penalty cases anymore. That’s the way the system is.”
Bright said the Holsey trial, his longest, lasted 17 days. In Fulton County, capital murder trials are known to take as long as six weeks. In Augusta, a trial can last half as long.
“If I had a true death penalty case, I would still ask for it now,” Bright said. “But it just seems getting them up to the plate is more difficult.”
The last inmate to be executed from Bright’s district was Brandon Rhode in 2010. He broke into the home of a Jones County family in 2007 and killed an 11-year-old boy, 15-year-old girl and their father.
Daniel Lucas, Rhode’s co-defendant, remains on death row. After six years, his case continues to be appealed.
Six months before McClain was put to death for robbing and fatally shooting an Augusta pizza store manager, then-Gov. Sonny Perdue granted prosecutors the option to seek life sentences without the possibility of parole in cases that don’t carry the death penalty.
The legislation immediately changed trial outcomes in Richmond, Columbia and Burke counties; juries began returning verdicts one to two votes shy of the death penalty, Wright said.
Before 2010, Georgia prosecutors were required to first seek the death penalty in murder cases before asking for a sentence of life without parole.
“When I started prosecuting, it was either life or death, but since that third option was provided, it has been more difficult for 12 members of a jury to agree to impose a death sentence, which is an awesome burden, an awesome burden, to put on people,” Wright said. “It’s an important function of society for the community to decide what is appropriate in the most hideous of murder cases.”
Wright said the shift in legal policy has altered the way prosecutors analyze cases.
“Quite frankly, trials move a lot quicker if you do not seek the death penalty,” Wright said.
In cases involving defendants with intellectual disabilities, though, postponements are common.
Hill came within hours of death in July 2012 and in February before scheduled executions were halted by last-minute court orders. In 2006, controversy swirled around whether Holsey suffered from mental impairment. Both Holsey and
Hill scored slightly above the IQ range of mental retardation.
The Georgia Council on Developmental Disabilities has called on the state to alter the burden of proof required to execute criminals who suffer from mental retardation to include clinical studies in addition to IQ tests.
“We are about to execute a man who was diagnosed with mental retardation,” Eric Jacobson, the council’s executive director, said while campaigning last week to stop Hill’s execution. “We have a Supreme Court decision and a general acceptance in our society that our most vulnerable citizens should not be executed. We need to honor that.”