Norman Fletcher presided as a Georgia Supreme Court justice for about 15 years, the last four as chief justice. Retired now, he speaks out on the problems with the death penalty in Georgia. Photographed in July 2007 in one of the law libraries at Brinson, Askew, Berry, Seigler, Richardson & Davis LLP in Rome, Ga. (JOEY IVANSCO/staff photo)
Photo: Joey Ivansco
Photo: Joey Ivansco

Former justice calls for end to death penalty

A former chief justice of Georgia’s highest court on Tuesday strongly renounced the death penalty and called for its abolition.

Norman Fletcher, who served 15 years on the Georgia Supreme Court, said the death penalty is “morally indefensible,” “makes no business sense” and is not applied fairly and consistently.

“Capital punishment must be permanently halted, without exception,” Fletcher said. “It will not be easy, but it can and will be accomplished.”

Fletcher, now a Rome lawyer, retired from the state Supreme Court in 2005. Although considered one of the court’s more liberal members, he cast numerous votes upholding death sentences. In more recent years, he has signed on to legal briefs urging courts to halt the executions of a number of condemned inmates.

Fletcher made his remarks Tuesday evening at the Summerour Studio near Atlantic Station, where he received the Southern Center for Human Rights’ Gideon’s Promise Award for his role in helping create a statewide public defender system.

In his acceptance speech, Fletcher said he was about to “shock” those attending the ceremony. Lawyers who once criticized his decisions upholding death sentences were justified, he said.

“With wisdom gained over the past 10 years, I am now convinced there is absolutely no justification for continuing to impose the sentence of death in this country,” Fletcher said.

Since a nationwide moratorium on capital punishment was lifted in 1976, more than 150 people on death row have been exonerated. Fletcher added, “There can be no doubt that actually innocent persons have been executed in this country.”

Too often, Fletcher contended, budgetary issues, race and politics factor into the decision-making of whether to seek the death penalty.

Fletcher cited the late U.S. Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun, who once said he could “no longer tinker with the machinery of death.” Blackmun made this declaration before he retired from the high court in 1994.

“It is time for us to quit the tinkering and totally abolish this barbaric system,” Fletcher said.

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