Last year, at a time when the use of death penalty had dropped to historic lows nationwide, Georgia executed nine people convicted of murder, more than any other state, including perennial leader Texas. You’d have to go back to 1957 to find the most recent year when Georgia executed more inmates—16, for those counting—than it did last year.
Don’t expect the pace to continue. Georgia’s death row is becoming a lonely place. Currently there are just 58 inmates awaiting execution at the Georgia Diagnostic and Classification State Prison in Jackson, Georgia, where capital sentences are carried out. (In 2000, 125 inmates were living under a death sentence.) The last person condemned to die in Georgia was Adrian Hargrove, sentenced in 2014 for fatally stabbing and bludgeoning an Augusta married couple and their pregnant 18-year-old daughter.
The state’s shrinking death row population reflects the public’s overall diminishing support for capital punishment. A Georgia College 2016 poll showed that 58 percent of state residents favored the death penalty, a figure that’s even lower than the national average of 60 percent. (Americans’ support for capital punishment peaked at 80 percent in 1994.) And thanks to the option of life without parole, prosecutors and juries have an avenue of punishment that ensures that convicted murderers will die behind bars.
In 2016, Georgia executed nine people convicted of murder after a six-month lull in the death chamber. On average, the inmates sat on death row for more than 20 years.
*Steven Spears “volunteered” for execution by waiving his right to an appeal.
No matter your opinion on the death penalty, one thing is indisputable: No one is executed in Georgia without the chance to proceed through a dozen or so different appeals that can either postpone execution or forestall it altogether.
Defense attorneys may only contest issues pertaining to the capital trial at first, but if judges affirm the original decision, the attorneys can then embark on a circuitous series of challenges in state and federal courts. It’s not until these “post-conviction” appeals that defense attorneys bring up issues beyond the scope of the initial trial, such as new evidence or juror misconduct.
Once all appeals are exhausted, the district attorney’s office that originally tried the case asks a judge to issue an execution warrant. The Georgia Department of Corrections must schedule a seven-day window between 10 and 20 days after the judge’s order for the execution to take place. At this point, a prisoner can only be spared if the state’s pardons and parole board grants clemency or a court issues a stay before the execution. Both instances are rare, though the latter does occasionally happen, delaying death sometimes by hours or even months.
Appeals rarely lead to exoneration. Only six Georgia death row prisoners have walked free since 1975. But appeals have spared the lives of at least 160 Georgia inmates who, between 1973 and 2013, were removed from death row because either their sentences or convictions were overturned, according to the U.S. Department of Justice.
In 2005 the Georgia General Assembly and state Supreme Court created the Georgia Capital Defender office to ensure that death row inmates were represented by experienced death penalty attorneys. Because of their work, the average time between conviction and execution has been extended. Of the nine Georgia prisoners put to death last year, the average stay on death row was more than 20 years. One inmate sat on death row for nearly 37 years.
What, then, explains the frequency of Georgia’s executions last year? Put simply, the state was making up for lost time. In March 2015 the state announced it would postpone scheduled executions after a portion of the state’s supply of pentobarbital appeared “cloudy”—a possible indication of contamination. The postponement created a six-month logjam. The nine executions in 2016 helped the state get back on schedule.
Death penalty defense attorneys—including Michael Mears, who has represented more than 160 death row prisoners and now teaches at John Marshall Law School—say the state’s backlog is now considerably diminished. This lowers the likelihood that 2017 will be as deadly. As of January only three prisoners await the outcome of their final appeal.
“I don’t think we’ll see another year with nine executions,” Mears says. “It’s not going to go away [but] it’s going to diminish in numbers. It’ll fade from public consciousness.”
Wheels of Justice
A death sentence marks the start of a long legal slog. The appeals process could spare a prisoner’s life, but losing all of the steps seals their fate.
This is where a jury can hand down a death sentence.
Lawyers can contest only issues brought up in the capital trial.
U.S. Supreme Court
A petition may be filed for an appeal. The nation’s top court probably won’t hear it.
State Post-Conviction Proceedings
Lawyers can present new evidence from outside the original trial.
State Court of Appeals
A judge reviews the previous state post-conviction ruling.
U.S. Supreme Court
Try again with SCOTUS. But it’s their call whether to hear the case.
Federal Post-Conviction Proceedings
A judge will only consider issues regarding egregious errors made by the state.
U.S. Court of Appeals
A judge reviews the previous federal post-conviction ruling.
U.S. Supreme Court
The last chance, except in rare cases, for an appeal before an execution gets scheduled.
The pardons and parole board may halt an execution.
Lawyers petition courts hours before an execution in hopes of a last-minute reprieve.
This article originally appeared in our April 2017 issue.