A coalition of Georgia religious and human rights activists led by Georgians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty (GFADP) spent Tuesday, February 17, 2009, asking state lawmakers to put the death penalty on hold in Georgia, improve indigent defense, and to oppose an effort to allow non-unanimous jury decisions in death penalty cases.
State Sen. Vincent Fort (D-Atlanta) and activists urged lawmakers to place a moratorium on all executions while the State studies potential blind spots in the system.
Fort said he filed a moratorium bill Tuesday, adding "further studies are necessary to make sure the State is doing its job" of protecting the innocent. The bill information is not yet available online as of press time.
"We should demand that we have a system where mistakes are held at a bare minimum," he said.
The Georgia General Assembly is also considering 2 bills that anti-death penalty activists say are harmful.
SB 42 would do away with the Georgia Public Defenders Standards Council (GPDSC), a group that assures people who cannot afford legal defense are provided adequate and effective legal representation, and replace it with a single director appointed by the governor.
"This will dramatically weaken legal support for poor people," Sara Totonchi, chair of GFADP, said of SB 42 during a press conference at the State Capitol.
Activists say the GPDSC is well-designed but it was not been able to serve effectively because state lawmakers have been unwilling or unable to fully fund it.
Another bill, HB 32, would allow non-unanimous juries to issue a death sentence; this is the reintroduction of a bill Atlanta Progressive News also covered last Session.
Activists say if the bill becomes law, Georgia would become the first state with a hybrid system that factors in the jury and judge's decision.
"Split jury decisions don't show a weakness in the criminal justice system," Totonchi said. "They show strength and fairness. They are evidence that jurors are taking their duty seriously, carefully weighing the evidence, and making the system operate as it was intended."
GFADP also argues the inevitable, protracted constitutional challenges to such a law would cost taxpayers millions of dollars, tie up the courts, and further delay already drawn out death penalty trials, appeals, and reversals.
"What is so important about the rush to kill people in Georgia," Edward DuBose, chair of the Georgia conference of the National Associated for the Advancement of Colored People, asked. "We stand opposed to any deal that would reduce the number of jurors, especially in a state holding innocent people – people who have been on death row for 20, 30 years."
Meanwhile, a bill moving quickly through the General Assembly could slow the number of death penalty convictions.
SB 13, sponsored by State Sen. Preston Smith (R-Rome), would give district attorneys the option of seeking a life without parole sentence without first having to seek the death penalty to obtain it. The bill is also co-sponsored by State Sen. Kasim Reed, currently running for Mayor of Atlanta.
Current rules dictate that the only way to keep a convicted murderer in jail forever is for the district attorney to seek the death penalty or to obtain a murder conviction against someone who already had a violent felony conviction.
SB 13 unanimously passed the State Senate on February 03, 2009, and received a favorable report from the House Non-Civil Judiciary Committee on February 11, 2009.
A similar Senate bill failed in a conference committee last Session after lawmakers could not come to an agreement on the non-unanimous juries legislation, which the House wanted attached.
Since 1973, 129 inmates have been exonerated from death row, including five in Georgia. While DNA evidence has played a significant role in these exonerations, faulty eyewitness testimony has been to blame for putting innocent lives on the line.
Troy Anthony Davis has been on Georgia’s death row since 1991 after a jury convicted him of the 1989 murder of Savannah police officer Mark Allen MacPhail. The prosecution used only eyewitness testimony to obtain a conviction.
But since the original trial, 7 of 9 witnesses have either changed or recanted their testimony. In light of the recantations, groups like GFADP and Amnesty International say there is far too much doubt to execute Davis and that he should be granted a new trial so the new evidence can be heard.
Martina Correia, sister of Davis, said Tuesday her brother’s case represents the problems that already exist in the system.
"We believe in a higher standard for the justice system," Correia said. "The standards that are trying to be imposed should really disgust all of us."
State Rep. Stephanie Stuckey Benfield (D-Decatur), who spent at least 2 years trying to reform eyewitness identification procedures through the General Assembly, said Tuesday there has been progress without legislation.
Working with various law enforcement agencies, Benfield said the Georgia Public Safety Training Center has developed a course on eyewitness identification as part of its training for all officers.
"I hope we won't see injustices like Troy Davis again in the future," Benfield said.
Correia urged other Georgians to stay informed on these issues. "If I stand out, it's because too many of us stand back."
"This is bigger than the death penalty, this is bigger than Troy Davis," Correia added. "This is about a system unseen. We can fight and be a voice for the voiceless."
(source: Jonathan Springston is a Senior Staff Writer for The Atlanta Progressive News)