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Editorial: Time to streamline death penalty appeals process
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The seal of Georgia rests on a wall in a juvenile courtroom on Wednesday, Aug. 22, 2018. - photo by Austin Steele

Not normally a top-of-mind news topic, Georgia’s death penalty was very much in that position last week, with the long-delayed execution of a Hall County man for a pair of murders committed nearly 25 years ago, and the sentencing to death of a Gwinnett woman who insisted on serving as her own attorney at trial.

The two very diverse cases show issues of concern with the administration of capital punishment, regardless of whether you believe in the death penalty.

In the Gainesville case, and with all executions in Georgia, the issue that demands resolution is one of interminable delay and postponement. 

In 1994 in Gainesville, a 5-year-old boy watched his mother be shot and killed. She was one of two women murdered that day. That same boy was a 30-year-old man by the time the person sentenced to death for the crime was actually executed.

The British Prime Minister William Gladstone is credited with having first said “justice delayed is justice denied,” and the oft-repeated maxim has the ring of veracity.

Data from the Georgia Department of Corrections shows that as of Jan. 1, 2019, there were 50 people being held under a sentence of death in the state. Of those, half have been on death row for 20 years or more. Six of the 50 have awaited execution more than 30 years.

One has been awaiting death for more than 40 years. Virgil Presnell raped and killed an 8-year-old Cobb County girl in 1976, and then sexually assaulted her 10-year-old friend, who was allowed to live. His original death sentence was overturned by the courts but has been reinstated since 1999, and still he awaits execution.

Delays in carrying out court-ordered executions are typically related to an ongoing series of appeals available to the convicted through the courts at both the state and national level, beyond the automatic appeal all such cases receive in Georgia. Those appeals processes need to exist. No one should ever be put to death whose case has not been thoroughly scrutinized to assure that conviction was merited and properly obtained.

In most such appeals, at issue are technical issues related to trial and sentencing rather than actual evidence and facts involved in the investigation and prosecution. Were jurors properly selected? Did the judge rule incorrectly on allowing a piece of evidence? Was the defense counsel competent?

In one recent Georgia case, the basis for an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court was that, seven years after the conviction, a single juror made comments in an interview that suggested the race of the defendant may have been an issue in his decision. The Court denied the appeal, finding there was insufficient cause in one juror’s words to overturn the decision.

There are legitimate reasons for such appeals, and they should be made by competent defense attorneys. But the time frame for making such appeals should be shortened, and the process for hearing and ruling on them should be streamlined.

Even as he awaited the final moments of his life Thursday, Gainesville’s Scotty Morrow’s execution order was being appealed, despite the 20 years since his sentence of death. After the state Board of Pardons and Paroles refused to grant clemency on Wednesday, the state Supreme Court denied a last-minute appeal on Thursday afternoon. The same court has also denied an appeal in February.

The U.S. Supreme Court denied the inmate’s final appeal Thursday night, just prior to his execution. We have to ask, what questions could possibly have been raised in those appeals that could not have been resolved in the previous 20 years?

The Gwinnett County case raises a different issue related to the sentence of death: Who gets it, and who doesn’t.

In that horrific case, a woman was convicted of starving her stepdaughter to death and conspiring to dispose of the body by burning it. The defendant served as her own counsel in the trial, raised no questions to witnesses, declined to testify and made no arguments to the jury.

The crime was heinous, and she was sentenced to death. But her husband, the biological father of the dead child and an accomplice in trying to burn the body, agreed to testify against his wife, and was given a sentence of life without parole for doing so.

One dead child. Two conspiring defendants. Two different sentences. In such a case, is justice served? Some would argue yes, and that making such deals in exchange for testimony to guarantee a conviction is justified; others would note the inequity between the sentencing and say no.

The “life without parole” sentencing option has made it rare that prosecutors in Georgia seek the death penalty, and most of those on death row now were sentenced more than 10 years ago. It is rare that a crime rises to the legal standard for asking a jury for a death sentence, rarer still that a jury chooses to do so.

The Gwinnett case, with the death penalty given a female defendant, was the rarest of all. Very few women have awaited death in Georgia’s prison system after being sentenced by a jury.

Last year, Georgia added no new prisoners to death row. Two were executed, two died from natural causes. One was resentenced to life without parole.

Whether there should be a death penalty at all is a debate that is as divisive as any that confronts our society. But if it is to exist, and as of now it does, there has to be a way to streamline the process from conviction to execution. Victims, witnesses and family members should not spend decades awaiting the justice promised by the courts.

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