Life in prison or the needle? These killers wait decades to find out

Almost 24 years have passed since Norris Speed shot Atlanta Police Officer Niles Johantgen in the back of the head. It’s been more than 22 years since a Fulton County jury sentenced him to death for killing the officer known as “the Russian” in the housing project where Johantgen patrolled.

But Speed’s death sentence was thrown out: the bailiff in the case had read Bible verses condoning the death penalty to the jury, had prayed with jurors and even asked them for contributions to his ministry. When that came out on appeal, the state Supreme Court overturned the death sentence, sending the case back to the trial court in Fulton County for resentencing.

That was in 2010.

At least four other men are in the same situation as Speed — their death sentences were thrown out for one reason or another years ago, but they've never had a resentencing hearing. And three of those cases, all from the Lookout Mountain Judicial Circuit in North Georgia, are even older than Speed's. One involves a murder committed in 1974, and an inmate who is 66 and suffering from cancer.The fourth case is from Clayton County: David Aaron Perkins, who was convicted of killing a neighbor in 1995.

Why, after all these years, would prosecutors spend the money and time to search for evidence and track down witnesses from a first trial decades earlier?

“Justice for the family,” Clayton County District Attorney Tracy Graham Lawson said about the reasons some prosecutors ask for another sentencing trial in decades-old cases after a death sentences is reversed.

Lawson filed official notice with the court in August that she would again ask for the death penalty for Perkins, who stabbed neighbor Herbert D. Ryals III to death after a few hours drinking and playing guitars with him.

‘Forcing victims to reopen wounds’

That doesn’t make sense to Sara Totonchi, executive director of the Southern Center for Human Rights, which opposes the capital punishment.

“Any responsible person would try to find an alternative to the death penalty in these extremely old cases,” Totonchi said. “It makes very little sense to continue to prosecute someone who very well may die in prison before the death penalty is carried out. … By opening up a trial for a very old case, prosecutors are forcing victims to reopen wounds from long ago as they face the most horrific times of their lives.

“It just makes no sense.”

Perkins’ resentencing has been pending for a relatively short time when compared with the other four. The Georgia Supreme Court reversed his sentence in 2011, saying his trial attorneys failed to adequately argue for life in prison instead of a death sentence.

Norris Speed’s case, in Fulton County, is the only one with a trial date. Fulton County Superior Court Judge Craig Schwall heard motions Thursday, and Speed’s sentencing trial is scheduled for February.

Speed’s case attracted significant media coverage when it happened, but memories have faded after nearly a quarter-century. According to testimony, Speed, then 22, insisted police had taken $20,000 in drugs and cash that belonged to him when they raided Speed’s mother’s apartment. Witnesses testified in the 1993 trial that there was tension between Speed and Johantgen because the officer had allegedly threatened to “catch him dirty ” so he could arrest Speed.

The Georgia Supreme Court ruled in 2010 that the bailiff in Speed’s trial had contaminated the process with his proselytizing.

Two aging inmates diagnosed with cancer

In one of three northwest Georgia cases, the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in 1998 ordered a new sentencing for Wilburn Wiley Dobbs for the 1974 murder of Chickamauga grocer Lee Sizemore Jr. The federal appeals court said Dobbs’ attorneys didn’t even try to persuade the jury to vote for life in prison instead of death. Dobbs, now 66, has prostate cancer, according to court records, and his failing health has caused the judge in the case to cancel hearings.

Jamie Ray Ward was convicted and sentenced to die for the 1989 rape and murder of a 23-year-old woman he first saw when he was drilling a well on her family’s property near LaFayette. A federal appeals court reversed his death sentence in 2010 because a bailiff answered jurors questions about whether Ward, now 59, could get life without parole for killing Nikia Kay Gilbreath; only a judge can address such questions. His case was put on hold when he was diagnosed with colon cancer.

Jonathan Jarrells was sentenced to die for stabbing to death a 71-year-old woman and brutally attacking her 75-year-old sister in 1987. Gertie Elrod and her older sister, Lorraine Elrod, let Jarrells inside their home when he knocked on their door to say he had been locked out of his brother’s house across the street.

The Superior Court in Butts County, where the prison housing Death Row is located, has said Walker County needed to decide first whether he is mentally challenged because Georgia cannot execute Jarrells if he is.

District Attorney Herbert “Buzz” Franklin, the prosecutor for the three counties in the Lookout Mountain Circuit in northwest Georgia would not comment on the Dobbs, Ward or Jarrells cases but he used another one to explain his reasoning for going back to trial when a death sentence is reversed.

The federal appeals court in 1991 reversed Robert Lewis Collier’s death sentence for murdering Baxter Shavers, one of two a Catoosa County deputies who pulled over Collier after he robbed a Fort Oglethorpe flower shop.

The judge, who heard the sentencing trial instead of a jury, sentenced him life without parole, not death.

“It (Collier’s) was not a case in which I would have agreed to a life sentence,” Franklin said. “I felt it was a case that was appropriate for the death sentence.”