Georgia Continues Shift Against Capital PunishmentJanuary 24, 2019

No new death sentences have been imposed in Georgia since early 2014 — which is the longest period the state has gone without imposing a death sentence since capital punishment was reinstated in 1976.

This trend is especially significant in light of the fact that Georgia prosecutors obtained death sentences in 18 cases between 2007 and 2014, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reports, citing several reasons for the decline:

Pursuing a death penalty means a costly trial and decades of appeals. And it’s now made more difficult by jurors’ growing reluctance to send convicts to their death. The availability of a life-without-parole sentence, which is seen by many as a more humane option, offers an alternative that district attorneys are turning to more often.

The paper's analysis of state records found that 2018 also saw prosecutors file the fewest notices to seek the death penalty in decades. Forty such notices were filed in 2005; 26 were filed in 2011; and just three were filed last year.

Cobb County District Attorney Vic Reynolds told AJC that the low number of notices could be attributed to the availability of life-without-parole sentences. He has sought the death penalty in one case during his six-year tenure as district attorney.

Historically, the option of life imprisonment without parole was available only if the prosecutor sought the death penalty, and a life sentence allowed for parole after 30 years. In 2009, Georgia lawmakers made life-without-parole available in non-death-penalty cases. 

"The majority of prosecutors around the state are now convinced that a life-without-parole sentence actually means what it says," Mr. Reynolds said. "It's made a huge difference."

He also observed that in Georgia, as across the country, public opinion against capital punishment has increased. "It's now more difficult to obtain a death sentence because that’s not necessarily what many of your citizens or jurors wish to be done these days."

Vernon Keenan, who retired this year after 15 years as director of the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, agreed that the death penalty is in decline in Georgia because the public no longer supports it. A 45-year veteran of law enforcement, Mr. Keenan said earlier this year that the death penalty is outdated and ineffective in advancing public safety. "I don't believe the death penalty deters anyone. The people that commit crime, they don't believe they're going to get caught."

Pete Skandalakis, a former district attorney and current executive director of the Prosecuting Attorneys' Council of Georgia, told AJC that the state Office of the Capital Defender has been instrumental in bringing down the number of death sentences. "That office has become real good at identifying mitigating factors for a defendant and talking about that with prosecutors long before lines are drawn in the sand," he said. "This has made a real difference, and you save the resources and the time required of a death-penalty case and the victims don't have to go through the years-long process."

Since 2015, the capital defender's office has closed 69 death-penalty cases — all but five without going to trial. In the five that went to trial, juries rejected the death penalty in all of them.

The failure to provide adequate counsel to capital defendants and death row prisoners is a defining feature of the American death penalty. Whether a defendant will be sentenced to death typically depends more on the quality of his legal team than any other factor.

The dramatic reduction in death sentences in Georgia underscores the difference that competent defense lawyers can make, law professor Stephen Bright told AJC

On Monday, Justice Sonia Sotomayor, joined by Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Elena Kagan, dissented from the Supreme Court's denial of review in the case of Donnie Lance, a man suffering from severe mental impairment who was sentenced to death in Georgia after his lawyer failed to present any evidence to the jury about why his life was worth sparing.

Mr. Lance and others like him "were sentenced to death some time ago often with lawyers who were not qualified to try a death-penalty case," Professor Bright said. "They are also people who would not be sentenced to death today."