Georgia led the nation in executions a few short years ago, and while that may seem to imply that the Peach State’s capital punishment system is thriving, that couldn’t be further from the truth.
In the last five years, Georgia juries have delivered only one death sentence, and public support for executions has been waning. Now there is even a budding bipartisan effort in the Legislature to replace the death penalty with life without parole.
House Ways and Means Chairman Harrell, R-Snellville, House Minority Leader Trammel, D-Luthersville, and others joined forces to spearhead this effort late in the 2019 session. Once the General Assembly makes further progress on their budget negotiations, the measure may be primed for a public hearing, and the Legislature would be wise to give it serious consideration.
Georgia, like much of the country, has grappled with a dangerously imperfect death penalty program. In modern times, the state has executed over 74 individuals but wrongly convicted and sentenced six people to die who were later released. Others, including Troy Davis, were executed even though the veracity of their verdicts were in doubt.
The sad truth is that wrongful convictions aren’t a rare occurrence. They happen far too frequently and generally stem from prosecutorial misconduct, reliance on faulty forensics, inept defense attorneys and mistaken eyewitness testimony. While all wrongful convictions are tragic, they can be irreversible in the death penalty system. And so long as humans remain flawed, wrongful convictions will continue unabated.
Partially in order to try to mitigate these risks, officials instituted “super due process” for capital proceedings, which simply means that trials and appeals are far more complex and time-consuming than they usually would be. While this hasn’t eradicated the risk of executing an innocent person, it has made the death penalty far more expensive than life without parole, which involves a far less-convoluted process.
Primarily as a result of increased legal expenses, the death penalty wastes substantial amounts of taxpayer dollars. Some studies peg capital punishment’s cost at millions of dollars more than the alternatives, and it has even led to tax increases in Georgia. Lincoln County, for instance, raised taxes to cover one capital case’s costs. Eventually county commissioners tired of the expenses and refused to further bankroll the case, whereupon the judge threw the county commissioners in jail.
Despite the high price tag and associated tax increases, capital punishment has done little for Georgia. Studies have revealed that there is no credible evidence that the death penalty adequately protects the public, and a poll of police chiefs showed that they rank capital punishment as the survey’s least effective method of safeguarding society.
What’s more, victims’ family members rightly bemoan the death penalty for its inability to provide swift and sure justice. Indeed, most capital-eligible cases do not result in death sentences, and even fewer end in executions. The ones that do occur decades later and following many public hearings, during which the slain’s loved ones must relive the most heart-wrenching moments of their lives.
Of course, lawmakers could shorten the appeals process in the name of victims’ loved ones, but that only increases the likelihood that the state will kill innocent people.
It remains to be seen how the Legislature will respond to the death penalty repeal legislation. Certainly, many advocates will make their case for abolition while the naysayers play defense.
Death penalty proponents are in an unenviable position because their support ultimately boils down to a deadly calculus in which they must determine an acceptable level of collateral damage. If they admit that the government is error-prone and the death penalty is a government program — which it is — then invariably, innocent people will continue to get caught in the system.
The resulting question becomes: How many innocent people are they willing to see wrongly executed?
The answer should be zero – especially considering the death penalty’s inability to protect the general public and aid victims’ families.
Marc Hyden is the Director of State Government Affairs at the R Street Institute, and he is a longtime Georgia resident. You can follow him on Twitter at @marc_hyden.