Death penalty on the wane in Georgia

A death penalty opponent holds a sign outside the Georgia Diagnostic and Classification State Prison in Butts County during a protest in March 2016. The state's execution chamber is located at the prison.

A death penalty opponent holds a sign outside the Georgia Diagnostic and Classification State Prison in Butts County during a protest in March 2016. The state's execution chamber is located at the prison.

Note: This story has been updated from its original publication in 2019.

Georgia prosecutors long held a reputation for zealously seeking the death penalty to punish those convicted of the most crimes, but the penalty has declined in recent years.

A jury in Glynn County imposed the last death sentence in Georgia in June 2022. Between March 2014 and March 2019, no one was sentenced to death in Georgia.

That five-year span was the longest in the state since the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated capital punishment more than four decades ago. It wasn’t long ago when death sentences were fairly routine in the state. Between 2007 and 2014, for example, prosecutors convinced Georgia juries to hand down death sentences in 18 cases.

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.

In 2018, Georgia’s district attorneys filed notices to seek the death penalty in just three cases. That was the lowest number, on an annual basis, in decades.

In 2011, prosecutors sought the death penalty 26 times. In 2005 it was 40 times, according to state records obtained by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution under an Open Records Act request.

Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis is currently seeking the death penalty against Robert Aaron Long, in the slayings four women at two metro Atlanta spas. The process is expected to take years.

Cobb County District Attorney Vic Reynolds.

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“Wow, I didn’t know that,” former Cobb County District Attorney Vic Reynolds said in 2019, when told so few death notices were filed in 2018.

Reynolds, who now serves as a Superior Court Judge in the Cobb Judicial Circuit, attributed the precipitous drop, at the time, to the ability of prosecutors to get sentences of life in prison without the possibility of parole.

This is also reflected on a national level. Across the U.S., capital sentences are reaching historic lows. Polls have shown increasing support for life-without-parole sentences as opposed to the death penalty.

Last year, seven death sentences were imposed nationwide, according to the Death Penalty Information Center in Washington, which was the lowest in 20 years. That’s down from 20 such sentences in 2022, 83 in 2013 and 120 in 2008.

Almost two decades ago, prosecutors in Georgia had to seek the death penalty against a murder defendant in order to get the option of a life-without-parole sentence. But in 2009 state lawmakers made a change that allows DAs to seek life without parole in non-death-penalty cases. In Georgia, a sentence of life in prison means an inmate can seek parole after serving just 30 years — a life-without-parole sentence is the only way to be sure someone convicted stays in prison.

“The majority of prosecutors around the state are now convinced that a life-without-parole sentence actually means what it says,” said Reynolds, who sought the death penalty in one case during his six years as DA. “It’s made a huge difference.”

The gurney used for lethal injections sits behind glass windows in a small cinder block building at the Georgia Diagnostic and Classification Prison in Jackson. 

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Reynolds also acknowledged that the public’s attitude toward capital punishment has shifted. “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,” he noted.

Vernon Keenan, who retired Jan. 2019 after serving 15 years as GBI director, said he doesn’t believe the death penalty will be around much longer.

“I believe at some point it will go away,” he said in 2019. “It will either be abolished by law or no longer used because the public no longer supports it.”

The state’s former top lawman said he has never supported capital punishment.

“It doesn’t accomplish much of anything,” Keenan said. “It doesn’t deter anyone from committing the crime. They’re not concerned about the sentence because they don’t think they’ll get caught.”

The last death sentences

There have only been two death sentences given in Georgia since 2019. Tiffany Moss was sentenced to death in Gwinnett County in April 2019 after being convicted of murdering her stepdaughter, Emani, by starving her to death in 2013.

Moss is the only woman in Georgia currently on death row.

The most recent death sentence was given to Ricky Dubose by a Glynn County on June 2022. Dubose was convicted of felony and malice murder in the shootings of corrections officers Curtis Billue and Christopher Monica on a transport bus in Putnam County.

The case was moved to Brunswick because of pretrial publicity.

He and fellow prisoner Donnie Russell Rowe escaped the bus after the killings, prompting a multi-state manhunt that ended with the men’s capture in Tennessee.

Rowe also faced the death penalty but was sentenced to life without parole last year after jurors were unable to reach a unanimous decision during his sentencing.

Just 10 days after being sentenced to death, Dubose was found unresponsive in his cell at the Georgia Diagnostic and Classification Prison in Jackson, where the state houses its death-sentenced prisoners.

2018’s death penalty cases

In 2018, the Pierce County District Attorney sought a death sentence against Kenneth Jernigan for deaths of Dan and Flora Hollman in the southeastern Georgia town of Patterson. Jernigan allegedly killed the elderly couple by beating their heads with a stick or a metal object during a burglary, according to court records. Jernigan, who had prior armed robbery convictions, was also accused of setting fire to the Hollman’s residence before leaving with about $40 in cash.

Kenneth Jernigan, who faces a death-penalty prosecution in Pierce County. 

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The Hollmans, who were semi-retired farmers, “were well liked and respected elders in their community, never broke the law, both giving, sweet and generous people,” Barnhill said.

“We have the death penalty as an option in Georgia,” the DA said. “It is a legal and appropriate sentence where the evidence supports it and the proven acts of the accused demand it. I decided it is appropriate to seek in this case.”

Jernigan was sentenced to life without parole in November 2019.

The state Office of the Capital Defender, which represents almost everyone facing a death-penalty prosecution in Georgia, closed 69 cases between 2015 and 2018. Most of the resolutions involved defendants who pleaded guilty in exchange for sentences of life without parole.

The capital defender’s office has developed a good rapport with district attorneys, allowing both sides to sit down and find common ground, said Pete Skandalakis, executive director of the Prosecuting Attorneys’ Council of Georgia.

Pete Skandalakis, former longtime district attorney in the Coweta Judicial Circuit, is executive director of the Prosecution Attorneys’ Council of Georgia.

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“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,” Skandalakis said in 2019, referring to a point when DAs will no longer negotiate a plea deal. “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.”

Of the 69 closed cases, only five went to trial. In those, juries declined to return a death sentence in all of them. Three of these cases involved the fatal shootings of police officers and resulted in sentences of life without parole.

“From what I’m hearing from jurors, there are a lot of people who believe life without parole is as harsh, if not more harsh, a punishment than the death penalty,” Jerry Word, who heads the state capital defender office, said in 2019.

Georgia’s death row

There are currently 36 men and one woman on death row in Georgia. Donnie Lance, who was sentenced to death for the November 1997 killing of his ex-girlfriend and her new boyfriend in Jackson County, was the last person to be executed in Georgia on January 29, 2020.

Virgil Presnell, Georgia’s longest death row inmate, was scheduled to be executed on May 17, 2022 but a Fulton County judge issued an injunction delaying the execution.

Executions in Georgia were put on hold during the COVID-19 pandemic through an agreement between the Attorney General’s Office and attorneys for the Federal Defender Program.

The agreement established three conditions that must be met before the resumption of executions: the expiration of the Georgia Supreme Court’s COVID-19 judicial emergency, the resumption of normal visitation at state prisons and a COVID vaccine that’s “readily available to all members of the public.”

In the emailed agreement reached in 2021, the AG’s said the first person to be executed after the three conditions were met would be Billy Raulerson, who sits on death row for killing three Ware County residents in 1993.

Instead, the AG’s office secured an execution warrant against Willie James Pye and his execution was scheduled for 7 p.m. on March 20. Pye was convicted of shooting, raping and killing his former girlfriend in Spalding County in 1993.

Attorneys for Pye argued that he was part of the agreement, but the AG’s office said he was not.

The fact so few death sentences are being imposed now in Georgia also points to the difference competent defense lawyers can make, said Stephen Bright, a law professor at Georgia State, Georgetown and Yale law schools.

“Those are people who were sentenced to death some time ago often with lawyers who were not qualified to try a death-penalty case,” Bright said in 2019 of the inmates about to receive execution dates. “They are also people who would not be sentenced to death today.”


Georgia has been a key state in the history of the death penalty. In 1972, the U.S. Supreme Court abolished capital punishment nationwide in the case of Furman v. Georgia, then reinstated it four years later in the same case. Since then, more than 230 murder defendants have been sentenced to death here and 75 have been executed. Yet it’s been almost two years since a Georgia jury imposed a death sentence and prosecutors are seeking death less often.