If it takes place as planned on Thursday, the execution of Jimmy Meders will be attended by the prison warden, medical personnel, witnesses and one perverse irony. The state no longer seeks, much less obtains, the death penalty for the crime of which Meders was convicted in 1989.
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Meders, 58, was sentenced to death in coastal Glynn County for the 1987 murder of a single victim during a convenience store armed robbery. Prosecutors said he shot Jiffy Store clerk Don Anderson in the chest and head and then grabbed cash and food stamps out of the register.
In a recently filed motion, Meders’ lawyers said there has been consistent movement away from death sentences being imposed for a murder like the one at the Brunswick store. They also disclosed that jurors on Meders’ case now say they would have sentenced him to life in prison without the chance of parole if that had been an option at his trial.
“This should never have been a death-penalty case,” said Meders’ lawyer, Mike Admirand of the Southern Center for Human Rights. “Had he been tried in 2020 and not 1989, Mr. Meders would not receive a death sentence.”
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Prosecutors are pressing ahead. During a court hearing on Wednesday, Senior Assistant Attorney General Sabrena Graham cited “overwhelming” evidence that Meders committed the murder and opposed his request for DNA testing.
Meders has contended another man who was with him that night was the actual trigger man and contends DNA testing of the Dan Wesson .357 magnum will prove it. But Graham said Meders was asking for testing just to delay his inevitable execution, and a trial judge in Brunswick agreed. Meders is appealing that decision to the Georgia Supreme Court.
In the 1989 trial, as jurors began considering Meders’ fate, they sent a question to the trial judge about 20 minutes into their deliberations. “If the jury recommends that the accused be sentenced to life in prison, can the jury recommend that the sentence be carried out without parole?” jurors asked.
The Georgia Legislature would not allow juries in death cases to sentence an offender to life without parole until 1993. Because it wasn’t an option in 1989, the judge overseeing Meders trial told jurors they couldn’t consider it.
About four hours after sending their question, jurors in the Meders case returned with the death sentence. Six of the eight surviving jurors have since signed affidavits saying they would rather have sentenced Meders to life without parole.
“Did I want the man to die?” the jury foreperson, identified by the initials J.H., said. “No, not really. But that was the only option if we wanted to make sure he didn’t get out.”
Another juror, identified as A.D., said, “I know that if we could have sentenced him with the assurance that he would never get out that I would not have voted for a death sentence.” If life without parole had been an option, said juror J.A.F, “I feel this is the route we would have taken.”
These jurors’ wishes are expected to play a role in Meders’ request for clemency when the State Board of Pardons and Paroles hears his case on Wednesday.
In the court filing, Meders' lawyers tracked the precipitous decline of the death penalty. Last April, Tiffany Moss of Gwinnett County became the first person in Georgia to receive a death sentence in more than five years and not another capital sentence has been imposed since then. Moss, convicted of starving her 10-year-old stepdaughter to death and then burning her body, represented herself and put up no defense to speak of.
As for Meders’ crime, not a single defendant in Georgia has been sentenced to death for such an offense in more than a decade, a court motion said.
“It is part of a clear trend whereby the people of Georgia are increasingly reserving the death penalty for only the most highly aggravated offenses — ‘the worst of the worst,’” said the motion, filed in Butts County, home to Georgia’s death row.
Moreover, no district attorney has sought death in a case like Meders’ in the past eight years, the motion said. For this reason, it added, Meders’ death sentence “is disproportionate according to the contemporary standards of decency of the people of Georgia.”
In a response filed Thursday, state attorneys disagreed.
“(Meders’) crimes, including the execution of an unarmed man during the commission of an armed robbery, are squarely within the type of crimes for which the death penalty is sought” and within the parameters of state law to warrant such a sentence, the filing said.
Four other inmates are on death row for carrying out similar murders and two more who committed similar crimes were recently executed, the motion said. The state contended Meders’ death sentence “was not an outlier,” although the murders cited in those six cases were committed years ago, not anytime recently.
Asked about Meders’ filing, longtime Gwinnett District Attorney Danny Porter said he doesn’t find his arguments to be persuasive.
“I don’t think it makes sense logically to apply future events to the things that happened in the past,” said Porter, who was not involved with the case. “It doesn’t mean this case didn’t deserve it, for whatever particular circumstances that led the jury to give the death penalty.”
Porter said he was not surprised that Meders’ jury in 1989 asked the judge if it could sentence Meders to life in prison so long as it could recommend no parole.
“That was a fairly common question asked by juries before the change in the law,” he said. “And here, the jury made the decision it did.”
David Bruck, who has defended many capital cases and is now a professor at Washington and Lee University School of Law, said it makes no sense to carry out executions for crimes that no longer get the death penalty.
“When people talk about the arbitrariness of the death penalty, this is what they mean,” Bruck said. “The actual behavior of prosecutors and juries over decades have shown that single-victim armed robbery murders are not enough to merit the death penalty. It doesn’t mean anyone’s getting out of prison. It means death sentences for these crimes don’t get carried out.”
In a case like Meders’, he said, “It’s like a person who’s the loser in a ghastly lottery.”
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Credit: Stephen B. Morton for The Atlanta Journal Constitution