Atlanta Must Reads for the Week: Georgia’s 159 counties, the state of the death penalty, and a South Georgia voter suppression claim

Plus, the Coathangers turn 10 and a Hawks player sues the NYPD for breaking his leg
An old map of Milton County

Courtesy Galileo/University System of Georgia

Evan J. Mandery for the Marshall Project on the last attempt to fix the death penalty

On the 40th anniversary of Gregg v. Georgia, the last time the U.S. Supreme Court tried to retool the death penalty, Mandery examines the impact of its ruling on executions nationwide:

At that Washington steakhouse, the troika, as they’d come to be known, decided to split the baby. They would reject the mandatory statutes, which they regarded as barbaric, but uphold the guided discretion approach. Together with the four Nixon appointees, they formed a 7-2 majority in Gregg v. Georgia, upholding Georgia’s new discretionary law, and, with Marshall and Brennan, a separate 5-4 majority rejecting the mandatory statutes. This Solomonic compromise created the bedrock principles of modern death penalty jurisprudence: that a non-arbitrary death penalty satisfies the Constitution and that the requirement of non-arbitrariness could be satisfied by Georgia’s approach.

The Gregg decision revived the American death penalty. It also began a social experiment. Underlying Gregg is an empirical proposition: legal standards would make capital jury decisions more predictable. “Let’s have them be as guided and as rational as they can be,” Stewart told his law clerk Ron Stern in 1976. Yet in five years of archival research and interviews for my book A Wild Justice, I found not a shred of evidence that any of the justices considered social science data. Certainly none is cited in the opinion. The most striking features of the compromise Stewart, Stevens and Powell embraced were the speed with which it was reached, the absence of supporting empirical evidence, and the three men’s unquestioning faith in the power of law and the state and local officials sworn to carry it out.

Forty years later, the data are in on the court’s grand compromise. How one interprets the results may depend on what’s being asked. If the essential question today is whether the death penalty is still being applied arbitrarily, the answer couldn’t be clearer. Arbitrariness is rampant. But, on the occasion of Gregg’s ruby anniversary, let’s ask a more refined question, which more directly honors the case’s peculiar history: Is arbitrariness less of a problem than it was before the Supreme Court got involved in 1972? In other words, has Gregg worked?

Read: It’s Been 40 Years Since the Supreme Court Tried to Fix the Death Penalty — Here’s How It Failed

Stephannie Stokes for WABE-FM (90.1) on why Georgia has so damn many counties

If you’ve driven through Georgia, you’ve probably noticed how many different county lines you’ve crossed. In fact, there are 159 counties—more than any other state besides Texas. Stokes decided to find out why:

When you ask a group of Georgians how the state ended up with 159 counties, there’s a story you’ll probably hear: Georgia’s counties were designed so that farmers in a mule-drawn wagon could get to the courthouse and back within the course of a day. According to this explanation, counties would have to be really small and so Georgia, a pretty big state, had to create a lot of them.

“That’s really an apocryphal story, as far as I know,” said Glenn Eskew, a history professor at Georgia State University. “I’ve never seen any law in the state code that stipulated that.” Eskew says the mule drawn wagon explanation, even if not factual, does tell us something about why many of the state’s counties were created.

“In Georgia, the population was so rural and spread out, that by having a structure of the county government, you were able to connect the very disperse, rural population with some governmental entity,” he said. But there is more to the story than that.

Read: Why Ga. Has The Second Highest Number Of Counties In The US

Chad Radford in Creative Loafing on a punk band’s 10th birthday

Back in 2006, four friends with zero experience playing music live performed their first show together. A decade later, the Coathangers are now one of Atlanta’s best punk rock acts. Radford reflects on how the all-female outfit made its mark in a male-dominated music scene:

Call it punk rock justice. In the summer of 2004, Stephanie Luke was back in Atlanta. She had moved to Los Angeles after graduating high school in 2000 to work as a tour manager. After wrangling a burgeoning pop punk quartet called Amity on a string of Vans Warped Tour dates, she felt it was time for a change. She enrolled in classes at Georgia State University and began studying art history. She spent her days hanging out at the GSU dorms Downtown, or crashing with a couple of friends in Decatur—Julia Kugel and Candice Jones. She bought a BMX dirt bike to move around the city. “That bike was badass,” Luke says. “I spent like 300 bucks on it, and I just rode it wherever I wanted to go. It was awesome.”

One morning, however, she awoke to find her bike gone. Stolen by a thief in the night. She had no idea who could have taken it. Several weeks later, while visiting a friend in Athens, Luke spotted her missing bike poking out from her friend’s boyfriend’s closet. “I thought, ‘That bastard ganked my bike!'” Rather than call the cops or confront her friend, she cased the joint. A drum set was shoved into a corner. Various clothing items and household debris were piled on its heads. Without saying a word, she loaded the drums into her car and made the drive home down Highway 316. “I remember saying to myself, ‘This is fair, and I think he’ll get it,'” she says. Apparently he did. “We never ever spoke of it,” she says. “I think he understood what I had done. It just kind of worked out like that.”

She laughs about it now, but in hindsight, it was a pivotal moment in her life. Before that day Luke had never played the drums. She hadn’t even really considered playing music. Walking away with those drums set in motion a series of events that led to her bashing away as the drummer for Atlanta punk rock mainstays the Coathangers.

Read: 10 years in the trenches with the Coathangers

Spencer Woodman for the New Republic on a South Georgia statehouse race gone awry

James Williams, a retired Albany police officer who is black, decided to run as a Democrat against longtime Republican state Rep. Gerald Greene, who is white, in this year’s election. In March, however, Williams learned he was no longer eligible to run due to an error by the Secretary of State’s office over his residency. Woodman examines whether the ruling was a minor redistricting error or an attempt at voter suppression:

Gerald Greene, a white Republican from Georgia, has represented the heavily rural, majority-black District 151 in the state House of Representatives for the past three decades. Because, according to Democrats, 151 is the state’s only minority-dominated district represented by a Republican, the Democratic Party had been eyeing it as a promising pick-up for the next election—a win, Democratic leaders say, that would signify a significant correction to years of the county’s black Democrats lacking legislative representation. In early March, the party finalized the candidacy of James Williams, a retired police officer from Albany, to run what Democratic strategists believed could be a winning challenge to Greene.

Yet on March 26, Williams went from campaigning against Greene to struggling to preserve his right to run in the election at all. That day, Williams says he received a call from the office of Brian Kemp, Georgia’s Republican Secretary of State, informing him that Greene had challenged his residency—and thus his eligibility to run in the district. Greene’s petition against Williams’s candidacy had found a receptive audience among the state’s top Republicans, who decided that, on closer inspection, Williams did not in fact reside in District 151. Suddenly, the majority-black district appeared to have no Democratic candidate residing within its lines, and the Williams campaign against Greene entered a realm of deep uncertainty.

“It was astonishing that I was being challenged after having voted in District 151 for approximately 18 years,” Williams told me. “I never thought something like this could happen in Georgia.”

Read: How White Georgia Republicans Are Derailing an African-American Candidate

Scott Eden for ESPN on the prosecution of an Atlanta Hawks player

Earlier this week, Atlanta Hawks forward Thabo Sefolosha filed a lawsuit against New York and five of its police officers following his unlawful arrest in 2015. First published last December, Eden’s story on Sefolosha’s prosecution is worth revisiting given this week’s legal action:

“[The one cop seemed to be in a rage. He’d told them to move; why were they still lingering? Get the f— out of here. Sefolosha said something back. He recalls lines of dialogue, largely corroborated by other witnesses. “You can talk to people nicely, it works just as well.” And: “It’s because you have a badge that you’re a tough guy.” “With or without a badge,” the cop replied, “I’ll f— you up.” (Much later, when the officer was asked under cross-examination whether he had uttered these lines, he said, “I do not recall.”) Sefolosha did not back down. “C’mon, man. You’re 5-foot-2. You’re a midget, man. Relax. I guess I’d be mad too if I were a midget.” The cop seemed to move away. Other officers were urging Sefolosha and Antic to get into the SUV, to leave immediately. One cop, by his own account, was even holding its door open. Sefolosha muttered that he didn’t understand why he was being chased off so aggressively—many others were milling around at that same moment—and he couldn’t resist another crack. “I pay my taxes,” he said. “Matter of fact, they probably pay your salary.” Then, just before he was about to duck into the SUV’s back seat, a man approached. “Yo, you gonna help a brother out?”

Sefolosha recognized him from earlier, when he and Antic first walked through 1 Oak’s ropes. He seemed to be a panhandler who worked the area. Sefolosha had refused the man’s earlier entreaty, but now he peeled a twenty from his billfold. According to Sefolosha, he made a point of saying out loud: “I’m going to give this guy some money.” He never got the chance. As can be seen on the CCTV video of the scene, the cop at the door of the SUV took the man by the arm and ushered him away. Irritated, intent now on pressing the bill into the man’s hand, Sefolosha took a few long, swift steps toward the pair, trying to catch up. But before he could get there, someone checked him in the side, spun him around and took him by the right arm. Sefolosha recalls the cop saying, “That’s it. You’re going to jail.” And then there was another cop, and then another: They were flocking to him. They had him by both arms. He dropped the $20 bill to the ground. “Relax,” Sefolosha said, addressing the cops. “Relax.” He was resigned now to being arrested. Running through his mind was: Get to the police station, clear up this misunderstanding—and get back to the hotel before anyone’s the wiser. This is not a good look. And then he felt a kick to his right leg and a flash of pain, and then his left side rose into the air as if lifted up by someone, and then he was falling and then he was on the ground, his face against the pavement, the knees of officers pinning him there.

Read: The Prosecution of Thabo Sefolosha