Death penalty opponents gathered in a circle outside the Georgia Diagnostic and Classification State Prison in Jackson on April 27, 2016, when Daniel Anthony Lucas was executed for the 1998 murders of a Jones County father and his two children. Ben Gray / bgray@ajc.com
Photo: Ben Gray/The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Photo: Ben Gray/The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Death sentences now a rarity in Georgia

It’s not that capital punishment is dying in Georgia. The state executed more condemned killers in 2016 than in any single year since capital punishment was reinstated here four decades ago. And district attorneys continue to seek the ultimate penalty, although they’re now doing so at the lowest levels in decades.

But the downtrend does mean that a death sentence has become an extremely rare occurrence in Georgia, and may continue to be so for the foreseeable future.

“The real death penalty in Georgia is now life in prison without parole, and that’s a death sentence,” said Stephen Bright, senior counsel for the Southern Center for Human Rights and an outspoken opponent of capital punishment.

In the past, Georgia prosecutors had to seek the death penalty against a murder defendant in order to be able to obtain a life-without-parole sentence. But that is no longer the case. Because of changes in the law, DAs can now seek life without parole.

Prosecutors filed notices to seek the death penalty against 40 defendants in 2005 and against 26 defendants in 2011. But they’ve only filed such notices 21 times during the past two years combined.

So far this year, Georgia DAs have announced they will seek death against eight defendants in three murder cases. This includes a case against four Chatham County gang members in the killing of a 24-year-old man in September.

Meanwhile, with this year’s nine executions, Georgia put more condemned killers to death than any other state in the country. The four other states that carried out executions in 2016 were: Texas, with seven; Alabama, with two; and Florida and Missouri with one each. With 58 men on Georgia’s death row, executions here could continue at a steady pace for years to come.

Yet this year’s U.S. total of 20 executions marked the lowest number nationwide in a quarter-century, according to a recent report released by the Death Penalty Information Center in Washington. Also, the 30 death sentences imposed in the United States this year represent a 39 percent drop from last year’s 49 death sentences, which at that time was the lowest total in four decades.

Voting For Life

Georgia juries are increasingly reluctant to impose the ultimate penalty.

This year, two juries in Fulton County and one in Newton County were asked by prosecutors to impose death sentences against defendants they’d just found guilty of capital murder. Each time, the juries unanimously voted for sentences of life without parole.

The most recent trial took place this fall in the case against Charmon Sinkfield. Sinkfield was convicted in October in the fatal shooting of former boxing champion Vernon Forrest during a 2009 robbery at a gas station in Atlanta’s Mechanicsville neighborhood. The Fulton County jury spent less than 30 minutes deliberating before arriving at the life-without-parole sentence.

Charmon Sinkfield was found guilty in October 2016 of murdering boxer Vernon Forrest during a 2009 robbery at a gas station in Atlanta. A Fulton County jury sentenced him to life without parole. (Photo: Channel 2 Action News)
Photo: Channel 2 Action News

Jerry Word, who heads the state’s capital defender office, said his trial teams conduct early intervention programs once it becomes clear a murder defendant could face a capital prosecution. They try to determine if there is mitigation evidence, such as a client’s mental illness or intellectual disability, that can be presented to a DA before a decision to seek death is made.

Early this year, Word helped convince a jury not to impose a death sentence against Brawny McCullough, who was convicted of killing his father and his aunt in Covington in February 2012.

“After the trial, one of the jurors said she felt like the fact our client would come out of prison in a body bag was just as much a punishment, if not more so, than lethal injection,” Word said.

Still Seeking Death

Cobb County District Attorney Vic Reynolds agreed that the life-without-parole sentencing option has made all the difference.

“It’s taken some time for prosecutors to come around and accept it,” Reynolds said. He noted that when he served as a police officer decades ago, a convicted murderer could become eligible for parole after serving just seven years in prison.

“Prosecutors now believe that life without parole means just that,” he said.

Early this month, Reynolds announced he was seeking the death penalty against Defareya Jamal Hunter, accused of raping and killing his 14-year-old stepdaughter and then burning the house down to cover up his crime. It was the first time Reynolds has sought the death penalty since he was elected DA in 2012.

“I prayed on it and seriously contemplated it before reaching the decision,” said Reynolds, who as a criminal defense lawyer represented three clients in death penalty cases. “I looked at the facts of this case, and we believe that by the time all the evidence comes out, most people will understand why we sought death.”

When Families Intervene

Cobb County has two of the roughly three dozen pending death penalty cases statewide. Fulton County, with nine, has by far the most capital cases awaiting trial. It also recently resolved one of its capital cases.

In September 2014, Fulton District Attorney Paul Howard announced he was seeking the death penalty against Stephen Heller for the fatal shooting of two 20-year-old men. But the families of both men have since asked that Heller be sentenced to life without parole. On Dec. 16, the DA’s office allowed Heller to enter guilty pleas and receive the life-without-parole sentence.

The next time a Georgia jury will be asked to impose a death sentence could come as soon as mid-January. Spalding County prosecutors are scheduled to go to trial next month in the capital case against Michael Bowman.

Bowman is accused in the shooting death of Griffin police officer Kevin Jordan, who was working an off-duty security job at a Waffle House in May 2014. Jordan, a 43-year-old father of seven, was shot multiple times in the back while trying to break up a squabble among people who’d been told to leave the restaurant. Bowman’s capital defenders have filed court motions saying their client suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder as a result of three Army National Guard deployments, twice to Iraq and once to Afghanistan.

Fulton Superior Court Judge Stephanie B. Manis in Atlanta in 2001. She died in December 2016, and her obituary stated that she opposed the death penalty, although she had signed execution warrants. (AP Photo/Ric Feld)
Photo: Ric Feld / Associated Press file photo

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