The nationwide decline in the use of the death penalty is particularly evident in Georgia, where no death sentences have been imposed for more than two years.
Last year, the imposition of new death sentences fell sharply from already historic lows, executions dropped to their lowest levels in 24 years, and public opinion polls revealed that a majority of Americans prefer life without parole to the death penalty. The number of new death sentences imposed across the country in 2015 was the lowest since 1973.
States that have been heavy users of capital punishment in the past have seen dramatic declines in death sentencing. Texas juries imposed only two new death sentences in 2015, which was the fewest since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976.
In Georgia, the last time a jury imposed the death penalty was in March 2014. The number of cases in which prosecutors have sought the death penalty has dropped more than 60 percent in the last ten years: a decade ago, prosecutors filed notices of intent to seek a death sentence in 34 cases; in 2011, it was 26 cases; and last year, that number fell to 13 cases.
This year, only one district attorney’s office has sought the death penalty in Georgia, in a single case involving the killing of a priest who protested against capital punishment and signed a document stating that even if he was violently killed, he did not want his killer to face the death penalty.
Brian Kammer, head of the Georgia Resource Center, which represents people with death sentences on appeal, told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution that death sentences are down because Georgia now provides competent lawyers to people facing the death penalty. “Had such legal teams with adequate resources been available to these recently executed prisoners at the time they were tried originally, I am confident they would be alive today,” he said.
Another factor is the availability of life imprisonment without parole as an alternative to a death sentence. Georgia lawmakers unanimously voted seven years ago to allow prosecutors to obtain a life-without-parole sentence without filing a notice of intent to seek the death penalty.
“It has made an enormous difference,” said Chuck Spahos, head of the Prosecuting Attorneys’ Council of Georgia. “When you start talking about the expense, the years of appeals and the length of the process that goes on and on and having to put victims’ families through that with no closure, the availability of life without parole with a guilty plea has become an attractive option.”
Georgia’s growing rejection of the death penalty raises questions about the fairness of executing people who would not be sentenced to death today. The state has put to death five people so far this year, and is expected to carry out another execution later this year.
In February, just 10 days before his 73rd birthday, Brandon Jones was executed for the 1979 killing of a convenience store manager during a robbery. No one has been sentenced to death for this type of robbery case in Georgia in the past 20 years.
There have been two death-penalty trials in Georgia this year. In both cases, juries in Fulton and Newton counties unanimously voted for life without parole. Atlanta attorney Akil Secret represented one of those defendants. “If a life-without-parole sentence is sufficient for today’s worst crimes,” she asked, “why isn’t it sufficient for those crimes from the past where death was imposed?”