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A matter of life or death 

House leaders try to sneak a back-door change to Georgia’s death penalty

As chairman of the House Judiciary (Non-Civil) Committee, state Rep. Rich Golick, R-Smyrna, takes his position seriously. That’s why he didn’t schedule committee hearings for a colleague’s bill to allow convicted killers to be sent to death row without a unanimous jury decision.

“During the legislative session, with all the meetings, bills and running around, it’s easy to develop ADD,” he says, only halfway joking. “If there’s an issue that deserves a long, probative, disciplined examination, it’s the death penalty.”

Thus he told Rep. Timothy Bearden, R-Villa Rica, that he’d be more than willing to take up Bearden’s non-unanimous jury bill once the session was over, in preparation for formal consideration during next year’s General Assembly. End of story — or so Golick thought.

So imagine how upset he was to learn that House Republican leaders were attempting to sneak the non-unanimous jury measure onto the House floor – circumventing Golick’s committee entirely – by tacking it onto a popular Senate bill to allow Georgia prosecutors to seek life without parole in murder cases.

Last week, most of the legislative headlines went to budget shortfalls, President Obama resolutions, food safety rules and other issues debated in open session. But one of the most important battles was taking place behind closed doors, as lawmakers tussled over whether to upend Georgia’s death penalty law in an apparent effort to challenge Texas for the title of the nation’s execution capitol. Allowing a majority of death-penalty jurors to override a few holdouts – a move that flies in the face of centuries of American jurisprudence – would likely result in a surge in death sentences.

None of this comes as a big surprise to jaded Gold Dome observers. The life-without-parole bill, authored by Sen. Preston Smith, R-Rome, had been hijacked in the House both of the last two years as a vehicle for a non-unanimous-jury death penalty bill sponsored by then House Majority Whip Barry Fleming, R-Harlem. In both instances, Smith scuttled his own bill rather than give the unwanted amendment a free ride.

Smith’s bill is the top legislative priority for Georgia’s district attorneys, who argue that giving them the option of seeking life without parole for murderers will end up saving taxpayers millions. Current law requires prosecutors to choose between pursuing life with the possibility of parole – which can be granted after 30 years – or death.

Only if a prosecutor submits a death penalty recommendation, but the jury disapproves does life without parole then become an option. Life without parole is also mandatory in Georgia if a defendant is convicted a second time of one of the “seven deadly sins,” including murder.

Besides opposing the push for non-unanimous juries, Smith believes Fleming’s bill was so poorly drafted it wouldn’t have stood up to legal challenges.

“I remain convinced that if the bill had passed last year the way it was written, it would’ve brought a halt to all death penalty trials,” Smith says.

Although Fleming left the House last year to launch a losing bid to unseat U.S. Congressman Paul Broun, R-Athens, he’s back this year as legal counsel to House Speaker Glenn Richardson, R-Hiram, a position that still allows him to pull legislative strings.

Fleming’s invisible hand was seen recently when Smith’s bill was placed on the House debate calendar – then mysteriously withdrawn. Golick says Richardson confirmed that the move was made to give Rules Chairman Earl Ehrhart, R-Powder Springs, the opportunity to attach Bearden’s non-unanimous jury bill – despite that it hadn’t even been vetted through the committee process, much less been passed by the House.

What followed was a weeklong, behind-the-scenes power struggle. Smith, the Senate Judiciary chairman, immediately bottled up all House bills under his purview. Golick worked to persuade the speaker to release Smith’s bill intact. Local prosecutors lobbied fiercely for the uncoupling of the life-without-parole bill from the non-unanimous jury measure – none more forcefully than Douglas County District Attorney David McDade, who, as the man who put Genarlow Wilson behind bars for having consensual sex with another teenager, can hardly be accused of being soft on crime.

At this writing, it appears Richardson and Co. have backed down. Last week, Ehrhart promised Smith that his bill would be sent to the House floor without amendments. If so, the measure could come up for a vote by March 25.

The death penalty has become an especially contentious issue in the wake of the Brian Nichols trial, in which the convicted killer escaped death row by way of a 9-3 jury vote. Fleming has argued that the law should be relaxed to make it easier to condemn killers to death.

But Golick says that, the Nichols case aside, death sentences are not unattainable, even in Fulton County, which is widely considered to be the state’s most lenient jury pool in capital cases. He points to a February trial in which De’Kelvin Martin was sentenced to death for the 2002 murder of his girlfriend’s son and grandparents.

“I take notice of the fact that a Fulton County jury returned a unanimous death penalty verdict a little over a month ago,” he says. “The circumstances of every case are different.”

Although it appears the life-without-parole bill will reach the House floor unaltered, it doesn’t mean it will stay that way; there’s a good chance it could be amended during debate.

And, even if such an effort fails to muster enough support, that doesn’t necessarily put an end to underhanded schemes to put a non-unanimous jury bill to a vote. There are still a number of other criminal-justice bills that could be used as handy vehicles for Bearden’s measure in the closing days of the session. Something to look forward to.

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