Of Counsel

Legal Notes on Georgia and The South

Investigating the GA Supreme Court and the Death Penalty

Posted by Maggie on September 26, 2007

Okay, get ready for the legal-ese, laymen. I’ve got some serious issues about the final AJC death penalty coverage today, but it’s getting a little technical.

One article in the AJC’s series on the death penalty today, High Court Botched Death Reviews, talks about the Supreme Court and the death penalty. The gist of the article is that the Court cites bad precedent in upholding death penalty cases. In particular it cites Hall v. State, 415 S.E.2d 158, a case from 1991. The language in the article seemed vague to me so I decided to do some digging.

The main issue the article addresses is that the Court’s job on appeal is to make sure the crime fits the appropriate circumstances for the death penalty, meaning it’s 1) outrageously wanton or vile, and 2) it involves torture, depravity or mind, or aggravated battery.

In Hall’s case, it seems like this may be a stretch. Hall previously abused family members. In this incident, he killed his son with a shotgun when he was drunk after he’d gotten angry with him for playing with a toy. The jury found that the abuse of the family and Hall chasing the child prior to death constituted “torture” within the meaning of the statute. Personally, I find it a stretch. To me it sounds like a typical non-death case, alcohol involved, domestic incident, fit of rage, etc. But back to the issue.

The AJC article says the opinion cites 20 death sentences without noting that 16 had been reversed. In the death penalty section of the opinion, the Court cites 4 cases. Only 4. 20 are listed in the “appendix” section as “similar cases.” In looking at a handful of these 20 cases, I’ve already found 6 that are still good on the death penalty issue. One sentence was overturned on habeas due to a confession, but the conviction was upheld. Yes, there are red and yellow flags. The cases are distinguished in later cases, and technical issues are overruled, but the death penalty law remains good.

Of the 4 cited death-related cases, 1 is about whether the jury made the requisite findings, 1 is about whether the jury had the required intent. 2 are cited in support of a proper death penalty finding. These two cases are Hance v. State, 268 S.E.2d 339, and Rivers v. State, 298 S.E.2d 1.

Hance has a crazy set of facts and is related the issue of an Aggravated Battery element. The defense tries to argue that murder pretty much always includes an Agg. Battery. Although there’s actually a specific reference to death by shotgun as NOT being sufficient to be torture. And statements that a killing of a member of the defendant’s family makes one less likely to get the death penalty. Hall seems to stand for the idea that “psychological torture” before death is sufficient for the death penalty. Certainly, Hance is a bad case to cite. It’s just not relevant to the matter at hand in any way, if anything it goes the opposite way. As for Hance’s precedent value, it is referenced in Hance’s later habeas petition in the 11th circuit, which is overruled in another 11th Circuit case in addressing improper closing argument. The precedent on death penalty issues is still valuable as far as I can tell. Hance didn’t even address the argument issue in his state appeal.

The other cited case, Rivers v. State, involved the murders of 3 people when the defendant robbed their home. One was shot, one was sodomized before death, and the last was kidnapped and held before being shot. The first death, simply by gunshot wounds and probably the first since it was the only adult, is found not to be appropriate for the death penalty. The other two are. Rivers is relevant in that it finds the psychological abuse in the kidnapping was enough to justify an aggravating circumstance. (Although it still seems like a factual stretch.) Rivers is good law, no yellow flags. So Rivers is a decent cite, though the Court should have thrown in additional argument as it still doesn’t seem similar enough.

All in all, the AJC article is very misleading. Only 2 cases are cited for the relevant issue. It’s true that one is a useless cite, but neither is bad law on that point. The dissent in Hall points out the aggravating factors in other cases the court cites for comparison. It’s an effective dissent, and I agree that Hall’s case doesn’t merit death under the law. The decision is plain wrong. But the article is not adequately researched and the legal information in it is troubling. It doesn’t seem to understand that even though a death sentence may later be vacated, that it does not completely invalidate all the legal rules set out in a case. The AJC reports Hall’s death sentence was later vacated, but I can’t find a link in Westlaw. The Chief Justice gave a statement noting that references to older cases refer to evidence the jury actually heard, not evidence they should or should not have heard. It’s a good point, meaning that the facts of a death case may still be useful even if it’s overturned, as long as it’s not because of a finding the case lacked the important aggravating factors.

Death penalty appeals certainly need to be examined. However, this article does a poor job of it. The relationship between direct appeal and habeas is not considered. The possibility of one grounds for being overruled versus another. I’m concerned that the AJC made merely a perfunctory look, found cases that were flagged, and immediately put them down as bad precedent. I’d rather we see a real legal analysis of the issue.

The final article, Is the Review Process Fixable?, has a better analysis. It points out that the Court makes an effort to find similar cases where the death penalty was given, rather than finding similar cases where life was given. I can imagine that it would be very beneficial to get a study analyzing death cases in the last decade and life cases by facts. In fact, the AJC seems to have done something close to it. I would hope the Court would seek out this kind of analysis.

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