An ink drawing of Christ penned by a multiple-murderer hangs on one wall. The desk is scattered with court documents, some of them describing how 1,800 volts of electricity can mutilate the human body. Mears pulls from a manila envelope the autopsy photos of Larry Lonchar, who in 1986 slit a woman's throat and shot and stabbed two men over a $10,000 gambling debt.
Mears, silver-haired, bespectacled and bow-tied, points to Lonchar's left buttock and says, "That's where the electricity arced from the electrode placed on Larry's head." Most of the left thigh is purpled and blistered, the result of misguided electricity, a botched execution. Another photo frames Lonchar's forehead, including the mark of the electrode and the threadlike, spider web burns spreading over the scalp. Mears glances at other photos and returns them to the envelope.
"Too graphic," he says.
He fears that the images may disturb others, in the same way they disturb him.
"I want it to bother me," he says. "I want it to grab my gut every time I look at it." Still, Mears refuses to attend executions. "I think if you go and become a witness to it, then you're a participant in it."
Not everyone is willing to make his living fighting the death penalty and sympathizing with killers.
Mears has represented defendants in 40 death penalty trials. He has served as counsel in more than 160 capital cases, most of which ended in a plea agreement for a life sentence. He heads the state-funded Multi-County Public Defender Office, an agency that takes cases other Georgia attorneys either can't, because of lack of resources, or won't, because the facts of the case are so heinous.
The job is not a glamorous one. After 23 years practicing law, Mears' salary is half of what most attorneys make five years out of law school. The 80-hour, seven-day workweek is draining. And the well-known, oft-quoted death penalty opponent can't even be guaranteed the cooperation of the men whose lives he works to save.
Two condemned inmates, Lonchar and Daniel Colwell, have tried to fire Mears to hasten their trips to the electric chair. Lonchar didn't succeed in getting rid of Mears, but he did become the 21st Georgia inmate to be electrocuted since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976.
Colwell killed a husband and wife in a Wal-Mart parking lot because he wanted to be sent to the electric chair, but he hasn't gotten there yet. He told police that as much as he wanted to die, he could not bring himself to commit suicide. He told jurors that he would target and kill them if they didn't sentence him to death. They complied.
Mears is trying to get Colwell's sentence overturned on appeal -- and is trying to use Colwell's case to get the state Supreme Court to rule electrocution unconstitutional.
At a Jan. 22 appeal before the Georgia Supreme Court, Mears argued that the state should deny Colwell's death wish. He told the justices that they could use Colwell, who suffers from schizophrenia and bi-polar disorder, to set a precedent against executing the mentally ill. While mentally retarded convicts are spared the death penalty, mentally ill ones are not.
But Mears is hoping for more from the justices than a decision on the mental illness issue. He's hoping that the Supreme Court will use evidence entered in the Colwell case -- including autopsies of past executions and expert testimony on botched electrocutions -- to rule that the electric chair is not just cruel and inhumane for the mentally ill, but for everyone.
The justices recently hinted that they are ready to rule on the constitutionality of Georgia's electric chair. In the past year they have upheld the use of the chair, but only after indicating that the evidence before them was either insufficient or entered at the wrong stage of the Kafkaesque death penalty trial process.
Colwell's case is different. The anti-electric chair evidence in his court file is the right evidence, entered at the right time, according to Mears.
"If they're looking for a case to make the ruling, this is a case they can do it in," Mears says.
On Jan. 11, a Fulton County Superior Court judge looked at the same evidence contained in the Colwell file and ruled in a different case that the electric chair "offends the evolving standards of decency that mark the progress of a maturing society" and involves "bodily mutilation and barbaric physical violence." The judge declared that the electric chair is unconstitutional, but her decision applies only to the one defendant whose case she is hearing.
Only the state or U.S. Supreme Court can make it unconstitutional to send the rest of the state's death row inmates to the electric chair.
If such a ruling comes, it will be a victory that has eluded Mears for more than a decade.
Mears was born in 1943 in Duck Hill, Miss., population 500. Days out of high school he joined the Navy, where he learned Russian and flew reconnaissance planes over Turkey. He later joined submarine missions in Vietnam and came home a war protester. He began teaching Russian and African-American studies at Decatur High School in 1969 and earned a law degree from the University of Georgia in 1977. When he thought about his future, he imagined himself an international lawyer, sitting in a plush office in London or Paris, drawing up contracts.
In 1983, a DeKalb County judge asked Mears if he would represent defendant Willie Fred Baty in a death penalty case, Mears' first. Baty, after completing a 16-year prison sentence for murder, was accused of killing a drug dealer and raping the dealer's girlfriend.
"I was totally unqualified for it," Mears recalls. "And I said yes."
A jury convicted Baty and sentenced him to life in prison. Mears felt that, because of his work, a man's life was spared. And he swore he'd never take a death penalty case again. He opted for what he believed to be a less stressful responsibility -- political office. The same year Baty went to prison, Mears, already a popular city commissioner, was named mayor of Decatur.
Months later, the ACLU called Mears and asked if he would represent death row inmate Jack Potts in a re-sentencing hearing.
"There were so few lawyers around who were willing to take on these cases," Mears says. "And there were so many cases that it was hard to refuse."
He gave up on London and Paris.
To Mears, the death penalty is racist and capricious. "It can't be applied equally. It certainly is anathema to everything this country stands for. Put aside the moral view, put aside the visceral abhorrence of the death penalty, if you look and see how it is applied, it doesn't work. It isn't practical."
In 1992, halfway through his third term, Mayor Mears volunteered to run the state's newly created Multi-County Public Defender Office. A year later, Mears retired two months from the end of his term as mayor, partly so that mayor pro tem Elizabeth Wilson could become Decatur's first African-American woman mayor.
But he also wanted to devote more time to death penalty cases.
"Once you've become that integral in someone's life -- and their death -- you can't cut it off," he says.
Mears' involvement doesn't end when the appeals run out. His staff of 12 sends Christmas, birthday and Father's Day cards to every killer they've ever represented. "That's a minor thing but that's the continued connection we maintain," he says. "We visit people on the row long after their cases are over. We try to help them maintain some kind of contact. Quite frequently, over a period of time, all their friends and family drift away."
The state Supreme Court could rule on the constitutionality of the electric chair within the month -- or it could ignore the evidence that says the electric chair kills cruelly and inhumanely. If the court rules electrocution unconstitutional, lethal injection will replace electrocution for those 130 inmates.
And Mears will still have his work cut out for him.
"At that point, we start working on the lethal injection statute," he says. "That needs to be looked at and needs to be changed. As long as there is the death penalty, we'll be fighting it -- whatever the instrument of death is."
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