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Death Sentences are Dwindling in Georgia, In Favor of a Different Kind of Death Sentence: Life in Prison Without the Possibility of Parole

It has been 4 years since a jury in the state of Georgia handed down a death sentence. This trend, and the shifting perceptions of capital punishment, have been reflected across the country: according to a Quinnipiac National Poll released in March, American voters support the death penalty 58 – 33 percent for people convicted of murder, yet when offered a choice between the death penalty or life in prison with no chance of parole, Americans choose the life option, 51 – 37 percent. According to Quinnipiac, this marks the first time a majority of voters backed the life without parole option since they began asking this question in 2004.

Georgia courts have imposed just four death sentences in the past nine years, and none since 2014. This is a remarkable shift from the 1990s, in which the state averaged nine new death sentences per year. It would appear from that shift that Georgia, through its prosecutors and juries, has turned away from the death penalty.  But executions tell a different story. Georgia carried out one or two executions per year in the 1990s, yet our state has executed nineteen people in the last four years.

Over the last few years, Georgia has executed a man whose drunk lawyer bungled the case, a man with intellectual disabilities, a veteran with post-traumatic stress disorder, a woman who planned but did not actually commit murder, and at least three men with strong claims of actual innocence. “These cases are no outliers,” says Sara Totonchi, Executive Director of the Southern Center for Human Rights. “They are emblematic of a particularly harsh time in Georgia’s history when death sentences were handed out frequently despite substantive and procedural flaws. And they encapsulate what’s wrong with capital punishment in Georgia.”

In 2017, nationally, 39 death sentences were imposed. While this number is still unacceptably high (particularly when juxtaposed against the rest of the Western world) compared to 1998, when 295 individuals were sentenced to die, it’s a welcome decline. Pete Skandalakis, the Executive Director of the Prosecuting Attorneys’ Council of Georgia, attributes the decline in death sentences as a result of people getting more comfortable with the idea of life without the possibility of parole. “That has made a huge difference,” Skandalakis told the Atlanta Journal Constitution. “And when you sit down with victims’ families and discuss the process of a death-penalty case with all the pretrial hearings, then the years of appeals that follow, I have found that families like the finality of life without parole. It lets them get on with their lives.”

A sentence of life without the possibility of parole – while an improvement over capital punishment in many ways – is a different sort of death sentence. Sending someone to die behind bars, with no expectation of ever being released, denies their humanity and their chance at redemption. Still, it seems that Georgia – and perhaps the country as a whole – is more ready than it’s ever been to move past capital punishment.

“Now is the time for Georgia to acknowledge that the death penalty no longer serves us,” says Totonchi. “It’s expensive, it’s fraught with errors, it’s disproportionately sought against people of color and low income individuals, and it targets our most vulnerable, including people with disabilities and metal health conditions.”

Read more at the AJC.