Georgia Supreme Court Hears First Death-Penalty Appeal in Two Years Amidst Sharp Decline in Death Sentences

In the midst of a sharp decline in death sentences in the state, the Georgia Supreme Court on June 4 heard a direct appeal in a capital case for the first time in two years. In March 2018, Georgia reached the four-year mark since it had last imposed a death sentence, a dramatic change for a state that once handed down 15 death sentences in a single year. The decline in Georgia's death penalty exemplifies broader national death-penalty trends. In 1987, when Georgia handed down those 15 death sentences, 288 people were sentenced to death across the country. Thirty years later, in 2017, Georgia was completing its third consecutive calendar year with no death sentences, and the national total was just 39. Pete Skandalakis, executive director of the Prosecuting Attorneys’ Council of Georgia, credits the public's preference for life without parole (LWOP) sentences, saying the availability of LWOP has made a "huge difference." "[W]hen you sit down with victims’ families and discuss the process of a death-penalty case with all the pretrial hearings, then the years of appeals that follow, I have found that families like the finality of life without parole. It lets them get on with their lives," he said. Other prosecutors have found that the reluctance of juries to impose death sentences has made them less likely to seek death. Gwinnett County District Attorney Danny Porter called it "a self-fulfilling prophesy," noting, "As more and more juries give fewer death sentences, prosecutors begin to think it’s not worth the effort." The Georgia capital defender office's early intervention program has also reduced the number of death sentences by presenting prosecutors with reasons to decapitalize a case and reaching plea deals before a trial begins. Jerry Word, who leads that office, said, "The average time to resolve a case in early intervention has been less than eight months. The average time to get a case to trial is over three years. This results in a saving in court time and dollar savings to the state and county." Although prosecutors are seeking and juries imposing fewer and fewer death sentences, Georgia has continued to carry out controversial executions of defendants who likely would not be sentenced to death today. These include the December 2015 and March 2018 executions of Brian Keith Terrell and Carlton Gary, despite evidence that they may have been innocent; the May 2018 execution of Robert Earl Butts, Jr., although no Georgia jury has sentenced any defendant to death in the past decade in a case like his that involved a single victim and only one aggravating circumstance; executions of several men whose equally or more culpable co-defendants received lesser sentences; and prisoners who were intellectually disabled. The U.S. Supreme Court also has ruled against Georgia in three capital cases since 2016, Foster v. Chatman, involving race discrimination in jury selection; Tharpe v. Sellers, involving a juror who said he doubted whether black people had souls; and Wilson v. Sellers, which presented a procedural habeas corpus issue.

(Bill Rankin, Death sentences becoming increasingly rare in Georgia, Atlanta Journal-Constitution, June 4, 2018.) See Sentencing.