House approves controversial death penalty bill
10 jurors could decide capital punishment
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Published on: 03/19/08
Imposing the death penalty in Georgia would take only 10 of 12 jurors under an amended bill approved by the state House Wednesday.
The controversial amendment would change the way capital punishment has been imposed in Georgia for more than two centuries. It allows a judge to decide the ultimate sentence if a jury votes at least 10-2 in favor of death. Current law requires a unanimous jury verdict for a capital sentence.
Senate Bill 145, sponsored by Sen. Preston Smith (R-Rome), began as non-controversial legislation. It allows district attorneys to seek life-without-parole sentences in aggravated murder cases. Under current law, prosecutors can only obtain life without parole for murder when they seek the death penalty or when a murder defendant has an earlier conviction for a serious violent felony.
But it was amended on the House floor to allow death sentences when juries cannot reach unanimity. A similar measure passed the House a year ago, but died in a Senate committee.
The amendment only addresses the sentencing stage of a trial and does not change the guilt or innocence phase of a verdict. Unanimity is still required for a judgment of guilt.
If the non-unanimous jury provision becomes law, it would dramatically change death-penalty trials in Georgia, Stephen Bright, a lawyer with the Southern Center for Human Rights, said.
"The value of requiring unanimity is that everybody's view is given equal weight," Bright said. "And, now, 10 jurors can simply disregard the views of two jurors. That changes the whole dynamic of how juries decide these cases."
Smith, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee that passed the bill that was amended, expressed disappointment the House changed his legislation and did not work the non-unanimous jury proposal through his committee.
"We feel like the two issues are very different policy decisions," Smith said. "Each one ought to have its own consideration on its own merits. By bootstrapping them together, both are now in jeopardy of failing to pass."
When the bill was debated last year, supporters said prosecutors seeking death were being thwarted by holdout jurors. Since then, Georgia's district attorneys have had greater success in obtaining death sentences. In 2007, state prosecutors sent six killers to death row â€” the most in at eight years.
Speaker Glenn Richardson (R-Hiram) said Wednesday that the amendment would prevent heinous killers from escaping a punishment they deserve. Richardson cited the 2005 murder of 9-year-old Jessica Lunsford, who was kidnapped, raped and killed after being buried alive near her home in Homosassa, Fla. A Florida jury, by a 10-2 vote last year, sentenced John Evander Couey to death. Couey's lawyers had argued their client was mentally retarded and mentally ill.
"If you need further convincing perhaps you ought to go talk to the family of Jessica Lunsford," Richardson said. If the murder had taken place in Georgia, Couey would not have gotten death, he said.
State Reps. Ed Lindsey (R-Atlanta) and Robert Mumford (R-Conyers), who is a former prosecutor, argued against the bill, saying that it would overturn centuries-old legal precepts that give juries the power to render life and death decisions in capital cases.
"Today we're imposing a new line at 10, next year it'll be nine, next year it will be eight, next year it'll be zero, because we've chosen no longer to trust juries," said Lindsey. "Well I'm here to tell you that that is an enormous step backwards for our civil society"
Lindsey, who said he supports the death penalty, also argued that if the bill becomes law, death row inmates could delay their executions even longer, because "of countless appeals on whether or not this proposed change is constitutional."
If the bill passes the Senate and is approved by the governor, Georgia would be one of only five states in the nation with the death penalty that does not require a unanimous jury verdict for a death sentence, according to the Death Penalty Information Center. The other four are Alabama, Delaware, Florida and Montana. A judge decides sentences in Delaware and Montana, while juries only make recommendations to judges in Alabama and Florida.