Capital Punishment in the United States Explained

In our Explainer series, Fair Punishment Project lawyers help unpackage some of the most complicated issues in the criminal justice system. We break down the problems behind the headlines - like bail, civil asset forfeiture, or the Brady doctrine - so that everyone can understand them. Wherever possible, we try to utilize the stories of those affected by the criminal justice system to show how these laws and principles should work, and how they often fail. We will update our Explainers monthly to keep them current. Read our updated explainer here.
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Georgia led nation in number of executions in 2016

Georgia's death chamber
Georgia's death chamber
Georgia led the nation in the number of executions carried out in 2016 by putting 9 men to death.

But as the number of executions has been high in Georgia in the past 2 years, the number of people on death row has shrunk and no new death sentences were imposed last year.

The last person sentenced to death in Georgia was Augusta resident Adrian Hargrove, 39, in March 2014. 6 years earlier, Hargrove stabbed to death pregnant teen Allyson Pederson and her mother and stepfather, Sharon and Andrew Hartley.

Fewer prosecutors seek death sentences now, District Attorney Ashley Wright said. When she filed notice of her intention to seek a death sentence if Steven Murray is convicted of murder for the slaying of a 71-year-old priest this year, it was only the 2nd death penalty notice filed in Georgia in 2016, Wright said.

2 changes in the law account for some of the decline - since 1993, jurors in death penalty cases have the option of imposing a sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole, and since 2010, prosecutors could seek a sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole without first seeking a death sentence.

A look at the sentencing dates for the 58 men on Georgia's death row currently shows the effects. 27 of the inmates were sentenced to death in the 1990s and 18 were sentenced in the 2000s. But only 5 death row inmates were sentenced since 2010.

When a prosecutor seeks to prosecute a homicide as a death penalty case, time slows to a crawl. It is not uncommon for cases to take several years to make it to trial, and if there is a conviction and death sentence, decades can pass before appeals are completed. And over the years, more death row inmates have had their sentences vacated and re-sentenced to life in prison than executed.

Of the men executed in 2016, the years spent on death row ran from nine years by Steven Spears, who waived his appeals, to 36 years for Brandon Jones, who was 72 years old when executed Feb. 3.

While few people have received death sentences in the past decade, the majority of Georgia's death row inmates are in the final stage of their appeal process, the federal habeas corpus. 30 of the 58 inmates are in the final rounds, although the final round can take years to litigate. Virgil Presnell has been on death row since 1976 for the rape and murder of a Cobb County child.

Another inmate with a pending federal habeas corpus petition is Reinaldo Rivera, a self-confessed serial killer sentenced to death in Richmond County Superior Court in 2004. His case is before U.S. District Judge J. Randal Hall.

A 3rd death row inmate from Augusta, Robert Arrington, was denied relief in his state habeas petition in December. He can appeal through the federal habeas corpus next. Arrington was sentenced to death in 2004 for the slaying of 46-year-old Kathy Hutchens in 2001. Arrington had previously served time in prison for killing his wife.

Source: The Augusta Chronicle, December 31, 2016

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