Georgia has employed capital punishment since colonial times, with executions recorded as early as 1735. Crimes punishable by capital punishment in Georgia have historically included murder, robbery, rape, and aiding a runaway slave. The last public execution in Georgia took place in 1893. Up until the 1920s executions were generally carried out by hanging, although the condemned were sometimes executed by firing squad and at least two persons were burned at the stake. Electrocution quickly supplanted hanging as the state’s primary execution method in 1924. It remained the primary method of execution until 2001 when the Georgia Supreme Court declared the practice unconstitutional as cruel and unusual punishment, after which Georgia converted to using lethal injection.
One of Georgia’s death row cases, Furman v. Georgia, has played a significant role not only in Georgia, but in U.S. death penalty law as well. In 1972, after the case was appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, the Court, in a 5-4 ruling, declared that Georgia’s death penalty statue was unconstitutional because of the real danger of arbitrary sentences of death being handed down by a jury trial. The declaration of the state’s death penalty as “cruel and unusual punishment” effectively voided a total of 40 states’ statues, commuting the sentences of 629 death row inmates around the country. Although the U.S. Supreme Court later reinstated the constituionality of the death penalty in 1976, the Furman case helped restrict the number and types of capital crimes in U.S. law.
Before 1976, Georgia carried out 950 executions, the fourth-highest number of any state. There have been 52 executions in Georgia since reinstatement of the state death penalty in 1973.
A recent execution has again placed Georgia in a position which may lead to re-evaluation of the death penalty. Troy Davis was executed in September 2011 for the 1989 murder of an off-duty police officer. After several stays to his execution, seven of the nine eyewitnesses involved in Davis’s trial recanted their testimony, and one of the two eyewitnesses who didn’t recant would have been the primary suspect in the case if he had. Davis attracted national and international attention, including pleas from former President Jimmy Carter, Pope Benedict XVI, former FBI Chief William Sessions and former Georgia Supreme Court Chief Justice Norman Fletcher, none of which halted his execution. The controversy which was sparked nationwide surrounding this case renewed debate regarding eyewitness testimony procedures and may help decrease chances of wrongful convictions in the future.
CMN State Spotlight- May 2013
“Abolition of the death penalty in Georgia must originate at the grassroots before change will occur in the halls of the Capitol – and this type of advocacy requires faith and perseverance at all levels.”