[Deathpenalty] death penalty news----GEORGIA
rhalperi at mail.smu.edu
Sat Dec 13 19:02:02 CST 2008
Nichols sentence may lead to death penalty changes
A jury's inability to condemn courthouse gunman Brian Nichols to death has
re-energized efforts by Georgia lawmakers to allow a judge to consider
capital punishment even if there's no unanimous verdict, as a growing
chorus of officials says it's time to give the policy another look.
Nichols was sentenced Saturday to life in prison without parole after a
jury failed to deliver a unanimous death sentence for the murders of 4
people. Minutes after the sentencing, Fulton County District Attorney Paul
Howard became among the first to call for a revived effort to tweak the
death penalty rules.
"There should be some consideration of non-unanimous verdicts so that the
minority of people that don't consider death won't get a chance to decide
the outcome," he said at an emotional post-trial news conference.
He and other policymakers say the Nichols case could become a rallying cry
for legislation aimed at preventing a "rogue" death penalty opponent on a
jury from sabotaging a capital case.
"Without question you'll see that bill come back," said state Rep. David
Ralston, who chairs a key House judiciary committee. "People are very
concerned whether jurors are being truthful about their feelings about the
death penalty, and whether they are really committed to following the
Twice in the last 2 years, the House passed proposals to allow judges to
impose a death sentence if 1 or 2 jurors vote against it. Both times the
plan was defeated in the Senate, where it faced fierce opposition from GOP
attorneys who warned it would put life-or-death decisions in the hands of
a judge instead of a jury.
Yet some opponents are now saying changes to the death penalty rules are
worth another look.
"This case has rocked Georgia's criminal justice system. When you have a
case where this much money is spent, this much time, it does beg the
question if the system is operating properly," said state Sen. Preston
Smith, a Rome Republican who voted against the bill in March. "I think
we're going to take a hard look at it."
Smith, who chairs the Senate's judiciary committee, added: "This case has
been a poster child for why there needs to be reform in the system."
Georgia law has long required that death sentences can only be returned by
unanimous jury verdicts.
If even 1 of the 12 jurors will not support a sentence of death, a judge
must decide whether to sentence a defendant to life in prison, with or
without the possibility of parole.
Superior Court Judge James Bodiford was forced to make that choice
Saturday after the Nichols jury deadlocked at 9-3, with 9 in favor of the
death penalty and the other 3 in favor of life without parole.
After the sentencing, the prosecutor said jurors had told him the 3
holdouts refused to deliberate and were adamantly against the death
"They came in with the belief the death penalty would never be just," said
Howard, who supports changing the law to allow the death penalty if up to
three jurors vote against it.
Critics worry that changing the rules would lead to longer, costlier
appeals and upend centuries of established legal tradition.
"We can't change the rules every time something happened that people
didn't like," said Stephen Bright, a prominent death penalty opponent who
heads the Atlanta-based Southern Center for Human Rights.
"If you have to convince everyone, the dynamic is that everybody has to
listen to everybody. If you have less than unanimous juries, then you just
take a vote," he said. "One of the beauties of the system is it requires
everybody to respond."
State Rep. Barry Fleming, a Harlem Republican who sponsored the 2 failed
efforts to change the unanimity requirement, said the Nichols case shows
that state laws must keep up with a changing society.
"We're in a day and age when people get on a jury and they'll say they
will vote for a death penalty, but simply won't do it. That has to be
accounted for," he said. "To give the judge the option in these terrible
cases is the right thing to do. There ought to be a safety valve."
On the Net: http://www.legis.state.ga.us
(source: Atlanta Journal-Constitution)
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