The Georgia Supreme Court on Monday did something it once did on a fairly routine basis but now hardly ever does: It heard a death-penalty appeal.
It had been almost two years since the court heard a direct appeal — the first appeal after a capital sentence is imposed — in a death-penalty case. And this once-unthinkable rarity shouldn't change anytime soon. It's now been more than four years since a Georgia jury handed down a death sentence.
This is in keeping with what's been going on nationally. Last year, 39 death sentences were imposed nationwide. That's a dramatic drop from 126 capital sentences imposed a decade earlier and from 295 death sentences imposed in 1998, according to the Death Penalty Information Center in Washington.
National polls show the death penalty is losing public support, said Pete Skandalakis, executive director of the Prosecuting Attorneys' Council of Georgia. That's because people are becoming increasingly comfortable with the sentencing option of life in prison without the possibility of parole.
"That has made a huge difference," said Skandalakis, once the district attorney for the Coweta Judicial Circuit. "And when you sit down with victims' families and discuss the process of a death-penalty case with all the pretrial hearings, then the years of appeals that follow, I have found that families like the finality of life without parole. It lets them get on with their lives."
On Monday, the state Supreme Court heard an appeal from Demetrius Willis, who was sentenced to death by a Fulton County jury in 2008 for the murders of his former girlfriend, their 3-year-old son and her boyfriend.
During the arguments, Willis' attorney asked the court to strike down the death penalty in Georgia on grounds it is arbitrarily imposed. "It's just not working," Charles Henry Frier said.
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Fulton County prosecutor Kevin Armstrong asked the justices to reject Frier's claim, contending "there's no basis" behind it. The state Supreme Court is expected to issue its decision later this year.
The last time a death sentence was handed down by a Georgia jury was March 2014 in Augusta against Adrian Hargrove, who committed a triple murder. Last year, the two death cases that went to trial in Georgia involved the murder of law enforcement officers — a crime that traditionally results in a death penalty. Yet both resulted in sentences of life without parole.
More often than not, district attorneys are now allowing capital defendants to enter guilty pleas in exchange for life-without-parole sentences.
"It's a self-fulfilling prophesy," Gwinnett County District Attorney Danny Porter said. "As more and more juries give fewer death sentences, prosecutors begin to think it's not worth the effort."
Even so, it's not time to remove the death penalty as a sentencing option, Porter said. "I think there are still cases where there's just no question that death is the proper punishment."
On July 23, Porter is scheduled to take the next capital case to trial in Georgia. Tiffany Moss, who as of now is representing herself, is accused in the abuse and starvation death of 10-year-old Emani.
Porter also sought death against the child's father, Eman Moss. But he pleaded guilty three years ago in exchange for life without parole. The same offer has been extended to Tiffany Moss in return for a guilty plea, but it will be rescinded once jury selection begins next month, Porter said.
In addition to Moss, four other defendants tentatively face death-penalty trials this year — three in Fulton and one more in Gwinnett.
Like Porter, many other Georgia DAs strongly support capital punishment. Last year, for example, DAs announced they were seeking the death penalty in 26 cases. So far this year, prosecutors have filed notices to seek death in just two new cases, the state records show. Since it can take years for death penalty cases to move foward, it's not clear how many of these will proceed to trial.
Opponents to capital punishment have traditionally been aligned with liberal causes. More recently, increasing numbers of conservatives are speaking out against it.
Heather Beaudoin, national coordinator of Conservatives Concerned about the Death Penalty, said her primary concerns are the number of exonerations that have been disclosed over the years and the possibility of executing an innocent person.
"We have a problem on our hands," she said.
According to the Innocence Project, there have been 356 convictions overturned by DNA evidence around the U.S. since 1989, including 20 who were convicted and served time on death row.
Beaudoin founded Conservatives Concerned about the Death Penalty in Montana in 2010. Five years ago, it became a national organization and has chapters in 13 states, including one in Georgia.
"Many of our supporters are millennials who are pro-life like I am," she said. "We believe that life is created by God and has value no matter what the circumstances are. Even someone who has committed an awful crime — that life has value."
After four years without a death sentence, Georgia's capital defender office is attracting national recognition. The capital defender's office is part of the state's public defender system and represents capital defendants who can't afford their own lawyers.
The office's intervention program, in which capital defenders seek plea deals from prosecutors early on in a case, has helped more than 20 defendants avoid a death-penalty trial, Jerry Word, who heads the defender office, said.
"The average time to resolve a case in early intervention has been less than eight months," Word said. "The average time to get a case to trial is over three years. This results in a saving in court time and dollar savings to the state and county."