Georgia House Approves Split Jury Death Penalties, Senate Overturns

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(APN) ATLANTA — The Georgia House of Representatives approved an amended bill Wednesday, March 20, 2008, that would allow a non-unanimous jury to hand down the death penalty. However, the Georgia Senate successfully stripped the controversial amendment on Thursday, March 21, 2008.

SB 145, sponsored by State Sen. Preston Smith (R-Rome), started out as legislation that would have allowed District Attorneys to seek a life without parole sentence in aggravated murder cases without first having to seek the death penalty.

But at the last minute, Majority Whip Barry Fleming (R-Harlem) offered an amendment that allows for judges to impose the death penalty when a jury is split 10-2.

Fleming’s amendment is very similar to his own legislation, HB 185, which passed the House last year but died in a Senate Committee.

The move to tack on the amendment was not suggested by the District Attorneys but was a product of political fighting between the House and Senate, Sara Totonchi of the Southern Center for Human Rights, wrote in an email obtained by Atlanta Progressive News.

The amendment came after public commitments were made to Smith that SB 145 would not be amended on the House floor, Totonchi said.

Speaker of the House Glenn Richardson (R-Hiram), in an unusual move, went to the well in support of the amended bill and “publicly claimed” his support “was payback to the Senate for tampering with his car tax bill [on Tuesday],” Totonchi said.

Richardson argued such an amendment “would prevent heinous killers from escaping a punishment they deserve,” according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution newspaper (AJC).

Four Republicans, including Reps. Edward Lindsey, Mark Hatfield, Robert Mumford, and Ed Setzler as well as Democratic Rep. Stacey Abrams, all spoke on the House floor against the amendment.

“Today we’re imposing a new line at 10, next year it’ll be nine, next year it will be eight, next year it’ll be zero, because we’ve chosen no longer to trust juries,” Lindsey said, according to the AJC. “Well I’m here to tell you that that is an enormous step backwards for our civil society.”

The House approved the amendment 100-66 and then the amended bill 112-55.

But the Senate, led by Sens. Smith, Kasim Reed (D-Atlanta), and Seth Harp (R-Midland), successfully removed the non-unanimous jury language from the bill.

According to another e-mail from Totonchi sent to APN, Harp described departing from the centuries-old practice of unanimous juries as creating “a hole the size a battleship could drive through” in Georgia’s death penalty statute.

The Senate voted 44-7 to remove the controversial language and the bill returns to the House to agree or disagree with the change. Everything is going to be done to keep SB 145 from going to Conference Committee, Totonchi said.

If this bill becomes law, Georgia would join only four states in allowing death sentences from non-unanimous juries: Alabama, Delaware, Florida, and Montana.

The General Assembly is in recess for the next week.

STATE SENATE APPROVES INDIGENT DEFENSE FUNDING REFORM

The State Senate on Thursday also approved HB 1245, which would give counties more influence over the statewide public defender system and would set a fresh cost-sharing system for certain death penalty cases, by a vote of 38-11.

The bill also prevents senior judges from participating in capital cases and provides that local counties pay some defense fees when private attorneys represent those on trial in indigent death cases.

In addition, the bill would change current law to extend the time a defendant has to see an attorney after making a request to five business days. Current law provides for only 72 hours after the arrest.

The State House can choose to accept or reject the Senate amendments when representatives take up the legislation again, according to the AJC.

EYEWITNESS ID REFORM NO GO

Legislation aimed at reforming eyewitness identification procedures in Georgia is dead for this Session, Rep. Stephanie Stuckey Benfield (D-Decatur) told Atlanta Progressive News Thursday. APN has followed Benfield’s legislative hearings on the issue this Session.

Benfield, who crafted HB 997 and HR 1071, said Majority Whip Fleming held the legislation in the House Rules Committee and wanted changes in language that would have effectively gutted the bill.

Speaker of the House Richardson was also apparently angry with Benfield for not supporting his tax proposals, Benfield said. Richardson had also proposed a statewide sales tax to replace income taxes.

Fleming, who Benfield described as “stubborn” on the issue, is vacating his House seat and running for US Congress in the fall.

If she is reelected this year she will bring back her legislation on eyewitness identification reform next Session, Benfield said.

About the author:

Jonathan Springston is a Senior Staff Writer for Atlanta Progressive News and may be reached at jonathan@atlantaprogressivenews.com.

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