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The history of the death penalty in Georgia

The gurney used for lethal injections sits behind glass windows in a small cinder block building at the Georgia Diagnostic and Classification Prison in Jackson. (Ben Gray/Staff)
The gurney used for lethal injections sits behind glass windows in a small cinder block building at the Georgia Diagnostic and Classification Prison in Jackson. (Ben Gray/Staff)

Georgia has been executing condemned prisoners since before the nation’s founding.

The first person put to death was Alice Riley, who was hanged in Savannah on Jan. 19, 1734. An indentured Irish servant who protested her innocence until the end, she was charged with participating in the murder of William Wise. Riley was pregnant at the time of her sentencing and allowed a temporary stay. She was executed four weeks after her child was born, according to GeorgiaInfo, an online almanac hosted by GALILEO and the University of Georgia Libraries.

The state’s legacy of slavery is intertwined with its laws regarding the death penalty. In 1863, for example, state law at the time held that white people who incited slave revolts or even tried to could face execution. by 1865, race-based death penalty statutes had been eliminated.

Condemned prisoners generally faced the gallows until the 1920s, although the state also used firing squads and at least two prisoners were burned at the stake, according to research compiled by the Death Penalty Information Center.

By 1931, all executions in Georgia were carried out by electrocution. That changed in 2001, after the Georgia Supreme Court ruled electrocution unconstitutionally cruel and unusual punishment. Since then Georgia has carried out the death penalty using lethal injection.

Retired AJC journalist Rhonda Cook witnessed 28 executions during her tenure. Here’s what it’s like:

As former AJC journalist Adam Carlson reported previously, a pair of Georgia lawsuits had national significance regarding the death penalty:

 Furman v. Georgia (1972): The court essentially halted the administration of the death penalty nationwide by striking down systems at the state level which afforded juries "arbitrary and inconsistent" discretion in imposing the death penalty on the convicted.

One justice wrote, "These death sentences are cruel and unusual in the same way that being struck by lightning is cruel and unusual ... (The Constitution) cannot tolerate the infliction of a sentence of death under legal systems that permit this unique penalty to be so wantonly and so freakishly imposed."

Gregg v. Georgia (1976): The court ended the moratorium on the death penalty by affirming Georgia's solution to the earlier Furman decision, in changing how its juries could impose the death penalty (specifically on one convicted man, Troy Leon Gregg). The court's holding set forth two conditions of a constitutional death penalty: "If the jury is furnished with standards to direct and limit the sentencing discretion, and the jury's decision is subjected to meaningful appellate review."

A third case related to the death penalty also began in Georgia: Coker v. Georgia, decided in 1977, ruled that the Constitution did not allow rape to be a crime eligible for the death penalty.