Georgia Remains Center of Death Penalty Controversy
Ray Charles sings about Georgia being on his mind. But, as Troy Davis was laid to rest Saturday in Savannah, Georgia was also on the minds of distraught death penalty opponents who saw him executed on the basis of questionable evidence and despite an array of witnesses who had recanted their original testimony.
Georgia has been at the epicenter of the death penalty debate for almost four decades. It was a case from Georgia â Furman v. Georgia â that led the U.S. Supreme Court to rule in 1972 that the death penalty was unconstitutional because it was being administered in an arbitrary and capricious manner.
After declaring a moratorium on executions, many states rushed to overhaul their capital punishment statues to comply with the new Supreme Courtâs standard. In 1976 â Gregg v. Georgia â the court approved the modified death penalty statues of Georgia, along with those of Florida and Texas, while rejecting the approach adopted by North Carolina and Louisiana that required all people convicted of murder to be executed.
But it was the case of Troy Anthony Davis, an African-American from Savannah that became Exhibit A in the re-energized movement to permanently outlaw the death penalty. His plight drew international attention as well as support from such unlikely sources as former President Jimmy Carter, conservative former U.S. Representative Bob Barr [R-Ga.] and former FBI director William Sessions.
Davis was convicted of murdering Mark MacPhail, an off-duty Savannah policeman moonlighting as a security guard. According to prosecutors, McPhail rushed to the aid of a homeless man who was being pistol-whipped by Davis. However, no gun was ever found, there was no DNA test linking Davis to the crime and more than a half-dozen witnesses have recanted or changed their original testimony.
One of the witnesses, Antoine Williams, signed an affidavit saying, ââŠAfter the officers talked to me, they gave me a statement to sign and told me to sign it. I signed it. I did not read it because I cannot read.â
A memorial service for Troy Davis was held Friday night at New Life Apostolic Temple in Savannah, Ga. A funeral, promoted as a âCelebration of Life,â took place Saturday at Jonesville Baptist Church, also in Savannah.
When it comes to the death penalty, race matters.
In 1990, a U.S. General Accounting Office report concluded, âIn 82% of studies [reviewed], the race of the victim was found to influence the likelihood of being charged with capital murder or receiving the death penalty, i.e., those who murdered whites were found more likely to be sentenced to death than those who murdered blacks.â
According to the Death Penalty Information Center, 76 percent of the murder victims in cases that resulted in executions were White, although only 50 percent of murder victims are White. Of defendants executed for murdering someone of the opposite race, 17 were White â including Lawrence Russell Brewer, who was executed in Texas the same night as Troy Davis for the 1998 dragging death of James Byrd, Jr. in Jasper, Texas â and 254 were Black.
A study of 2,000 potential death penalty cases in Georgia led by Professor David Baldus of the University of Iowa found that the odds of receiving the death penalty in Georgia were 4.3 times greater if the defendant killed a White person than if he had killed an African-American. A report prepared for the American Bar Association found the multiplier was 4.4 in North Carolina and 5.5 in Mississippi.
While race matters, itâs not the only thing that matters.
A 2007 investigation by the Cincinnati Enquirer found that judges on the U.S. court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit, which covers Ohio, Kentucky and Tennessee, voted consistently along party lines. Judge Nathaniel Jones, who retired from the circuit, told the Enquirer: âItâs a roll of the dice. When I look at a lineup of a panel in this kind of case, you can almost go to the bank on what the result is going to be.â
And the numbers support that view.
The newspaper figures show that federal judges appointed by George H.W. Bush voted 50-4 against granting inmatesâ capital murder appeals. Appointees of George W. Bush voted 34-5 against granting such appeals. Reagan judges voted 39-13 against the requests. By contrast, Carter appointees voted 31-4 in favor of granting inmatesâ appeals. Bill Clintonâs appointees were not as firm, voting 75-32 in favor of the appeals.
âStatistics like these do not prove that judgesâ decisions are influenced by their political leanings, but the stark contrast in outcomes strongly suggests that judgments in death penalty cases are subjective and influenced by other factors that interject a high degree of arbitrariness into the process,â concluded a report by the Death Penalty Information Center titled, âStruck by Lightning: The Continuing Arbitrariness of the Death Penalty.â
Still other factors also determine the fate of murder suspects.
âThe system is too fraught with variables to survive,â observed H. Lee Sarokin, a retired federal appeals court judge. âWhether or not one receives the death penalty depends upon the discretion of the prosecutor who initiates the proceeding, the competence of counsel who represents the defendant, the race of the victim, the race of the defendant, the make-up of the jury, the attitude of the judge, and the attitude and make-up of the appellate courts that review the verdict.â
The next execution in Georgia is scheduled for Wednesday, Oct. 12, exactly two weeks after Troy Davis was put to death in Jackson, Ga. Both Angela Sizemore, the victim in that case, and Marcus Ray Johnson, the man convicted of murdering her, are White.
Donât expect any all-night vigils in support of Johnson. Do not look for any signs proclaiming, âI am Marcus Johnson.â And donât expect protests in Paris or anywhere else proclaiming Johnsonâs innocence.
According to a summary of the case filed with the United States Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit, in the early morning hours of March 24, 1994 Johnson met Sizemore at Fundamentals, a west Albany bar. Sizemore had attended a memorial for an acquaintance the previous day and had been drinking so heavily that the bartender stopped serving her. Witnesses said Johnson was deeply upset that another woman had spurned his advances early in the evening.
A court filing said, âThe bar owner and its security officer (who both knew Johnson) testified that they saw Johnson and Ms. Sizemore kissing and behaving amorously.â The couple left the bar around 2:30 a.m.
âIn a statement, Johnson said he and the victim had sex in the vacant lot and he âkind of lost it.â According to Johnson, the victim became angry because he did not want to âsnuggleâ after sex and he punched her in the faceâŠâ
Thatâs not all he did.
âJohnson sexually assaulted Sizemore with the limb of a pecan tree, which was shoved into her vagina until it tore through the back wall of her vagina into her rectum,â the court filing recounted. ââŠJackson also cut and stabbed Sizemore 41 times with a small, dull knife.â
Johnsonâs trial lasted from March 23 to April 7, 1998. He was found guilty of malice murder, felony murder, aggravated assault, aggravated battery and rape. He was sentenced to death on the malice murder charge, life imprisonment for rape and 20 years for aggravated battery.
In an unusual twist, the prosecutor was Gregory W. Edwards, who later became the first Black District Attorney in Dougherty County, and the presiding judge was another African-American, Willie Earl Lockette, now the Chief Judge on Dougherty Superior Court in Albany.
As of January, 3,251 persons were on death row. There were 103 in Georgia, including Troy Davis and Marcus Johnson. Nationally, 42 percent of those on death row are Black, although African-Americans make up only 13 percent of the U.S. population. Latinos represent 12 percent of those awaiting execution.
The American Bar Association (ABA) called for a moratorium on all executions in 1997, a resolution that remains in effect.
âTwo decades after Gregg, it is apparent that the efforts to forge a fair capital punishment jurisprudence have failed,â the ABA resolution stated. âToday, administration of the death penalty, far from being fair and consistent, is instead a haphazard maze of unfair practices with no internal consistency.â
Even Ray Charles can see that.
No peace, no peace I find
Just this old sweet song,
Keeps Georgia on my mind.