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No joy in the victory as Lumpkin County man faces execution for 2001 slaying
Spears scheduled to die by injection Nov. 16
Steven Spears
Steven Frederick Spears

Of all the details from the 2007 prosecution of Steven Frederick Spears, Enotah Judicial Circuit Superior Court Judge Stan Gunter said the defendant’s attitude stands out the most.

Spears, who was charged with the strangling death of Sherri Holland in 2001, sounded “almost gleeful about what he had done, almost bragging about it” in his statements with law enforcement, Gunter said.

“As the trial went on, I think he had some time to reflect and mellowed back a bit on that attitude,” Gunter said, who was the lead prosecutor in the case in 2007. “He was very defiant going through the trial process with the court and with his attorneys.”

Spears, of Lumpkin County, is set for execution by lethal injection Nov. 16. He will have a clemency hearing the day before.

At the news of Spears’ pending execution, Gunter said the move was coming quicker than he would have thought.

“It’s the verdict you had been asking for, but there’s no joy in the victory,” he said.

Spears was accused of breaking into Holland’s home on Aug. 25, 2001, and strangling her. He had reportedly come up with multiple plans to kill her, including bludgeoning, electrocution and shooting.

“Breaking into her home with that intent made it a burglary, which is an aggravating circumstance for a death penalty,” Gunter said. The other circumstances included the manner of death, he said.

If executed, Spears would be the eighth Georgia inmate to die by lethal injection this year. It has been 40 years since the Gregg v. Georgia decision by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1976.

In 1972, the high court in Furman v. Georgia had struck down the death penalty as unconstitutional.

“Georgia’s legislature rewrote the statute to conform to the objections expressed by the court in the Furman ruling,” said professor Douglas Young, who lectures on capital punishment at the University of North Georgia.

After the 1976 court ruling, executions of inmates resumed in 1977, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics.

The number of inmates sentenced to death rose steadily until 2000, when the number began to fall, according to BJS.

When teaching his students, Young said the majority still is largely in favor of the death penalty.

“Now there’s a much larger minority of students who are troubled by capital punishment,” Young said.

When asked why the number of inmates sentenced to death may have fallen, Young pointed to the crime rate and murder rate decreasing as well as public perception.

According to historical Gallup polling on people in favor of the death penalty since 1936, the high point was 80 percent in favor in 1994. When the pollsters asked in October 2015, 61 percent said they were in favor of the death penalty.

Young also said some high publicity cases of convictions being overturned by later DNA exonerations may play a part.

“I think that spooked some folks,” he said.

Northeastern Judicial Circuit District Attorney Lee Darragh said the availability of the life without parole option may also explain some of this statistical phenomenon.

Georgia executed one inmate in 2013 and two in 2014. In 2015, the number increased to five.

“As to an increased number of executions in recent years, it is important to note that some of these cases involved decades of redundant appeals that eventually end,” Darragh wrote in a statement. “This extremely long process should be shortened.”

The court system has held that those facing the death penalty have more appellate rights than other convicted persons, Young said.

“The death penalty remains, as it should continue to, an important sentencing option in eligible cases involving the most egregious murders, multiple murders, serial killers and the like,” Darragh said. “Without it, those sentenced merely to life without parole for example, would have free rein to kill at will in the prison system, among many other legitimate reasons.”