published Tuesday, December 29th, 2009

South tops nation in executions

A national report shows an overall decline in death sentences and executions, but the South still leads the country in use of the death penalty.

One Georgia state representative said that, counter to the study's findings, lawmakers in his state are trying to make the death penalty more accessible as an option.

"In the Georgia House we've tried to pass legislation that would make it a little bit easier to put a death penalty upon someone convicted of a crime that warranted the death penalty," said Rep. Jay Neal, R-LaFayette.

Rep. Neal said bills have been introduced in the Legislature that would allow juries to send a death penalty decision to the judge when the vote is either 11-1 or 10-2 in favor. Now, the decision is entirely upon the jury and must be unanimous.

Counter to the decadelong decline in death sentences and executions, there was a slight increase in the number of executions nationwide between 2008 and 2009, according to the annual Death Penalty Information Center study.

The center advocates for alternatives to the death penalty.

The study's authors noted the annual increase mostly was attributed to a four-month moratorium ordered by the Supreme Court last year to address controversy over lethal injection. Executions that would have been performed in 2008 during the moratorium instead were conducted this year, increasing the number of executions this year over last year.

Fifty-two prisoners were put to death this year, while 37 were killed in 2008.

Comparing the first decade of the 2000s with the 1990s, both executions and death sentences are down almost 50 percent, said study author and center director Richard Dieter.

Part of the reason for the decline, said Hamilton County District Attorney General Bill Cox, is that in the first part of the decade, many jurisdictions did not have a life-without-parole option. Since then, the Legislature and the courts have limited who is eligible to be sentenced to death.

"We've seen the narrowing of the number of defendants that qualify as a result of the imposition of certain aggravating factors," said Mr. Cox, whose office last won a death-penalty conviction in 2003 when a jury convicted Marlon Kiser of killing Hamilton County Sheriff's Office Deputy Donald K. Bond.

Public opinion based on Gallup polls conducted in the 1990s and more recently show support for the death penalty down from 80 percent to 65 percent across the nation, Mr. Dieter said.

The report noted that probably contributing to the decline are the high costs of appeals, which discourage prosecutors from seeking the death penalty, and the difficult task that juries face when deciding a death penalty case.

"This is a very expensive program, and the return is small," Mr. Dieter said.

Death penalty trials cost an average of 48 percent more than trials in which prosecutors seek life imprisonment, according to a 2007 report by the Tennessee Comptroller of the Treasury. The same report showed that the Tennessee Criminal Court of Appeals reversed 29 percent of capital cases on direct appeal.

But, Mr. Dieter said, even in the Southeast, numbers have declined.

There were three executions in Georgia last year, the same as 2008, while Tennessee executed two prisoners this year compared with none last year.

Alabama had the highest number of executions in the Southeast with six this year compared with none last year, according to the report.

The three states were among only 11 states to execute inmates this year.

Hedy Weinberg, head of the ACLU of Tennessee, said the study's findings did not surprise her.

"Based on what we're seeing across the country, there are serious concerns with the applications (of the death penalty)," she said.

She emphasized that the ACLU long has been opposed to the death penalty and works to address "serious flaws in the Tennessee death penalty."

Locally, Mr. Cox said the death penalty has a deterrent factor.

"I would think that if anyone is considering a first-degree, premeditated murder, that the death penalty has crossed their mind," he said. "It is impossible to know its true effect in deterring something that has never happened."

about Todd South...

Todd South covers courts, poverty, technology, military and veterans for the Times Free Press. He has worked at the paper since 2008 and previously covered crime and safety in Southeast Tennessee and North Georgia. Todd’s hometown is Dodge City, Kan. He served five years in the U.S. Marine Corps and deployed to Iraq before returning to school for his journalism degree from the University of Georgia. Todd previously worked at the Anniston (Ala.) Star. Contact ...

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