Bipartisan lawmakers aim to end Georgia death penalty

A bipartisan group of state legislators wants to abolish the death penalty in Georgia and instantly commute the sentences of inmates facing executions to life without parole.

House Bill 702 was introduced Thursday – too late in the legislative session to gain any traction but timed to spark debate for next year's gathering of lawmakers.

It was introduced by state Rep. Brett Harrell, a Snellville Republican, and seconded by a cast of characters who don’t often team up on legislation.

Democratic sponsors involve some of the most prominent members of the caucus: House Minority Leader Bob Trammell, Minority Whip William Boddie and state Rep. Scott Holcomb of DeKalb. The GOP backers include Bill Werkheiser of Glennville and Scot Turner of Holly Springs.

It will face a skeptical audience. Although Georgia Democrats are increasingly opposed to capital punishment – Stacey Abrams vowed to end the death penalty during her 2018 campaign – Republican leaders have largely backed the penalties for the most severe crimes.

Georgia is one of 31 states that allows capital punishment, and the state has executed 72 people since 1976. There are still 55 men convicted of murder on Georgia's Death Row.

But the legal process has come under scrutiny in recent years with high-profile cases such as the execution of Troy Anthony Davis, a condemned Savannah man who insisted to his last breath that he was innocent.

The need for the legislation may be waning.

Georgia prosecutors once aggressively sought the death penalty to punish violent criminals. But the last death sentence imposed in Georgia came in March 2014, and new criminal justice policies mean that prosecutors seek the punishment less often.