Fulton County prosecutors set modern-day record

The office won three death penalties in 12 months, a rarity for the county.

Fulton County prosecutors set a modern-day record this July: three death penalties in 12 months.

For nearly 25 years, winning a death penalty in Fulton was rare. After imposing it on Robert Conklin, who dismembered his victim, in 1984 until last year, Fulton juries delivered death penalties only four times despite a slew of brutal or multiple killings.

“They had a long stretch where they weren’t getting the death penalty at all and now it seems easier for them to get it,” said Tom Clegg, a defense lawyer and former prosecutor.

District Attorney Paul Howard suggested the reason: Killers willing to kill kids. Still, others suggest there may be other reasons, and they hesitate to call it a new trend.

After taking office in 1997, Howard began seeking the death penalty aggressively for egregious murders that had strong evidence of who committed the killing “If it is a crime that is so across the line, I’m not going to spend much time thinking, ‘Will they give it to him?’’ Howard said.

Despite seeking the death penalty at least nine times, only one jury voted for execution for more than a decade. That trend began changing in 2008.

In each case, children were victims or a threatened target.

“The one thing jurors won’t put up with is cases where someone harms children,” Howard said. “The cases where we last got the death penalty show that.”

● Jurors voted to execute Demetrius Willis for killing his ex-girlfriend, her boyfriend and her three-year-old son in July 2008.

● Jurors again announced death in January for De’Kelvin Martin, who not only stabbed to death a 77-year-old grandmother and an 83-year-old grandfather but also their 12-year-old grandson.

● Last month, a jury sentenced contract killer Cleveland Clark to death. He stabbed and strangled a woman and told cohorts he should have killed her baby.

Some lawyers doubted the death trend would continue. They noted a jury in December could not reach a unanimous decision to impose the death penalty on Brian Nichols despite, convicting him of four murders and multiple other violent crimes in the 2005 Fulton Courthouse shooting.

“That is a significant number, but I don’t see it as a harbinger for flood gates opening on the death penalty in Fulton County,” said Mike Mears, who defended death cases for decades and who credited the Clark verdict to his belligerent behavior at trial. “That guy brought his death penalty on himself by acting out in court.”

Clegg, who defended Martin, blamed the death trend in part on the public outcry over the Nichols case in which three jurors refused to sanction execution for the murder of a judge, a court reporter and two lawmen.

“I think the Nichols case has had a paradoxical effect of making jurors more prone to consider the death penalty,” said Clegg. “My gut tells me that there were so many people aggravated at the Nichols’ jury failure to return a death penalty there has been some sort of backlash.”

Deputy District Attorney Shondeana Morris, who prosecuted Willis and Martin, doubted the Nichols case was a factor. Willis was convicted before Nichols, she said; Instead, she contended the brutal facts persuaded jurors. Willis wounded two other children, including his 10-year-old daughter, whom he left for dead. And in the Martin case, the killer’s own two-year-old son tried to shield his 12-year-old half brother with his own body.

“The two year-old was completely covered with blood,” Morris said. “He went from being a very vibrant young child to becoming much more reserved. You know he reverted back to crawling. I think that is just very powerful to a jury.”

Some lawyers see a shift in the jury pool as making death penalties more acceptable. Juries had been seen as dominated by white liberals and blacks with doubts about the death penalty since a 1986 U.S. Supreme Court decision made juries racially more diverse. Now that north Fulton has swelled, mostly with a wealthier and more socially conservative population, juries may be more likely to get 12 votes needed for execution, they said .

“I think Fulton County is becoming Alpharettaized,” said Tom West, who defends death cases around Georgia. “It is no longer an African-American dominated liberal bastion.”

Howard dismissed the idea that demographics was driving the shift, saying the notion that a juror’s race might help determine his or view on the death penalty was offensive.

Howard contended both blacks and whites in Fulton were becoming more supportive of the death penalty and polls over the years supported him. According to Gallup polls over the years, while views have fluctuated, blacks and whites nationwide have grown more supportive — even though defense lawyers contend fewer death penalties are being handed down nationally.

“If you give enough evidence, in most cases jurors will do the right thing,” Howard said. “The whole notion that in our county that somehow our citizens were different was something I did not believe.”