Of Counsel

Legal Notes on Georgia and The South

AJC Cover Saga on the Death Penalty

Posted by Maggie on September 24, 2007

As usual, this weekend I took a break from the blog. It meant I wasn’t paying attention to the Sunday AJC, but fortunately I was alerted by Joe.

Today is Day 2 of a 4-part series on the death penalty in Georgia. While today’s cover story is somewhat biased, the overall coverage has been interesting. (Although not surprising to those of us who’ve practiced in more rural counties.)

The major finding of their investigation is that the death penalty is given in Georgia arbitrarily. It has little connection to the severity of the circumstances of the crime. Rather it depends on where it happens. It also covers how many of the worst cases avoid the death penalty by pleading guilty and gives discussion to the broad discretion of DA’s in the matter. DeKalb County, one of the main counties of metro Atlanta, hasn’t given out the death penalty in the last decade or so. Fulton only had 2 from ’95 to ’04.

After the jump I’ll link the individual articles with a brief summary.

Death Still Arbitrary covers the basic stats and seems to be an intro to what we’ll be getting over the coming days. As most of the stories do, it contains juxtapositions between brutal and less brutal crimes to see where the death penalty was given. It includes this quote from Genarlow-Wilson-prosecuting-DA McDade: “You know it when you see it.” It also points out that killing whites is a great way to get the death penalty.

Worst Killers Spared: Two disparate cases examines nearly identical cases in different counties, one of which gave death, the other didn’t.

10 Reasons to Impose the Death Penaltygoes over the 10 aggravating factors to get death under the law.

Same Crime, Different Outcome considers several types of murder cases, including murder for hire, robbery, sex crimes, etc. and examines cases where life vs. death was imposed.

The Racial Factor points out that whites are more likely to get the death penalty because they’re more likely to kill other whites. “Black victims have to be really, really brutalized before they’re treated the same as a white-victim case,” said a criminologist who studied the statistics.

Today’s coverage includes A Death Case Derailed which examines one specific rather brutal death and considers how the death penalty was avoided. While the circumstances are horrific, I have to admit that there seems a slight bias in this article. It seems to criticize the decision to allow a guilty plea to take death off the table after the prosecution ran into obstacles. It glides over the expense and trouble a death penalty case has, the difficulty for the victim’s family at trial, and the possibility that a trial won’t result in a conviction–all important factors that need more attention.

Where Cases Diverge looks at DeKalb DA Tom Morgan and Ocmulgee DA Fred Bright. Morgan had 0 death penalties whereas Bright had 7 in the same time period. (And Morgan has a much bigger population to work with.) Bright doesn’t pay attention to factors like the young age of a defendant. Whereas Morgan considers the toll on the family a trial may have and the years of appeals and cost. An interesting analysis.

There’s a map by county to show death penalty cases given and charged in ’95 to ’04. There is also a specific county write-up for Gwinnett, Clayton, Cobb, DeKalb and Fulton counties.

My absolute favorite thing about this series is that they actually tell you how they got their data. A University of Maryland criminologist reviewed the data. It was reviewed by a death penalty expert at Columbia. Each circuit’s DA’s were asked to review their specific data, info was also sought from defender agencies and the Board of Pardons and Parole.

There is an Excel file with their data base and a word file for a key. There’s even a word file with the criminologist’s complete report. (Any of the above links will have these downloads available on the sidebar.) I could’ve done without the “Can You Guess the Verdict?” quiz. The comments are heavily pro-death penalty, which isn’t that surprising, I guess.

We need these kinds of studies, but I worry that it’ll lead to more regulation of the death penalty and a demand to make it more common. The last thing we need right now with the defense system in the shape it’s in. Props to the AJC, I’ll update Wednesday and Thursday with the rest of the series.


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