Saturday, 24 February 2007

Prosecutor argues that death penalty reform is needed

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Prosecutor argues that death penalty reform is needed

ATLANTA (AP) — A lone jury holdout should not be able to sabotage a death sentence, a prosecutor told a state House panel on Wednesday.

At a hearing packed with supporters and opponents of capital punishment, Augusta District Attorney Danny Craig said Georgia's law should be changed to allow the death penalty in cases where a jury is not unanimous in the sentencing phase.

Craig was speaking in support of a bill introduced by House Majority Whip Barry Fleming, R-Harlem, that would allow a judge to impose the death penalty even if as many as three jurors cast a vote against execution.

He was the only witness to testify on Wednesday in the first of what are expected to be several hearings on Fleming's bill.

Opponents argue the system works as it is and is designed to provide a system of checks and balances.

''Sometimes a juror votes against the death penalty because issues are raised that convince them that the defendant does not deserve to die, not because someone is out to sabotage the process,'' public defender Gerald Word said in an interview after the hearing.

Craig argued public support for the death penalty remains high across the country and in Georgia.

''Yet we have a law that allows one juror to veto the votes of the other 11,'' he said.

As evidence that the law was needed, Craig pointed to the case of William Kenny Stephens. Two separate juries sentenced Stephens to die. Legal problems prompted a third trial and in those proceedings a sole juror voted against capital punishment. Stephens was sentenced to life without parole.

Fleming's bill would still require that a verdict of guilt or innocence must be unanimous. The change would apply only to the sentencing phase.

Rep. Kevin Levitas, an Atlanta Democrat and former prosecutor, said he had concerns that the state would be imposing an easier standard for the execution than for guilt or innocence. And he wondered if the measure would be ultimately pass muster with the courts.

''I'm a little concerned that we should be supporting a penalty of death based on majority will,'' Levitas said.

Craig said three other states — Delaware, Alabama, Florida — also have laws that allow for a sentence of death in cases where the jury is not unanimous.

''This is definitely a constitutionally safe bill that's been introduced to you,'' he said.

Craig said he did not believe most jurors who ultimately vote against a death sentence do so to hinder the process. He said some may believe they are pro-death penalty but find they cannot follow through once the emotions of the process sink in.

''I don't think most people during jury selection truly know what they feel about the death penalty,'' Craig said.

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