The one near Florida, not the one in the Caucasus.
As every other of our 50 states, Georgia requires juries to be unanimous in deciding on a death sentence. And that’s a good thing, we’d say. We shouldn’t sentence someone to death lightly, and asking a jury to be unanimous is only due diligence.
Well, but a jury has just convicted a truly nasty man of a truly nasty crime, four murders — and it has not been unanimous on killing the murderer, Brian Nichols. And as a result, legislators are falling over themselves to see who gets to be the one to introduce legislation to abolish the unanimity requirement:
But on Friday, three jurors shocked the legal community here by failing to agree with nine others on a death sentence and therefore, under Georgia law, sparing Mr. Nichols from execution. Without a unanimous sentence from the jury, a judge instead gave him 11 life sentences, plus 485 years in prison without parole.
Now, just days after the decision, Georgia legislators have begun lining up to introduce bills eliminating the requirement that juries be unanimous for a death sentence. Hard-on-crime lawmakers have long favored easier rules on death sentencing, but the Nichols sentence has given new urgency to their cause.
But what’s the problem here? The jury has spoken, in the way they’re asked to speak. Don’t we have a perfect example, here, of justice as it’s meant to be? Well, no, say critics:
“Unfortunately, you have people who say they’re willing to consider the death penalty, but when they get on a jury, it becomes clear that they’re actually death penalty opponents,” said Representative Barry A. Fleming, a Harlem Republican who twice sponsored efforts to revoke the unanimity requirement. Most recently, the proposal died in the State Senate in March.OK, I get that. Of course people shouldn’t lie about their beliefs in order to torpedo a jury. But I have two issues with it, nonetheless. For one, we’re not talking about one holdout wingnut (like the one who reportedly listened to music and worked crossword puzzles, rather than participate in the death-penalty decision). It was three. Three out of twelve. That’s a full 25% who opposed it. Surely, that’s enough to cast doubt on the wisdom of a capital-punishment decision.
The other issue is that the jury has to be selected specifically to exclude people who think that the state shouldn’t be killing prisoners. By doing so, they’re already skewing the jury toward such a decision. And if they’re having trouble seating jurors who are willing to do the deed, doesn’t that, itself, say something?
The article brings up something I haven’t heard before, which also bothers me:
For years, the case’s length and cost have fueled criticisms of Georgia’s public defender system. State Senator Preston W. Smith, a Rome Republican, accused defense lawyers of spending like “drunken sailors on shore leave” to provide an “O. J. Simpson-style defense, all on the taxpayer’s dime.”If we believe that everyone deserves a competent defense — I do — we should be applauding the public defenders for doing everything they could for Mr Nichols, rather than criticizing them for spending too much on someone Senator Smith surely considers not worth spending even one of those taxpayers’ dimes for.
In fact, it was the prosecutor, not the public defender, who drove the case into deep time and money — years, and millions. The prosecutor had an offer from Mr Nichols of a guilty plea in exchange for a life sentence. But they wanted him dead, so they rejected the offer. The cost and lengthy trial is not down to the defense, which had a duty to do the best it could.
But there’s something even more disturbing:
“This case shows how arbitrary and irrational the death penalty can be,” said Richard C. Dieter, the executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center. “People shake their heads when they hear that someone got the death penalty for robbing a 7-Eleven, and Brian Nichols got life in prison for his heinous crimes.”That’s fine, if you think of it one way — it’s irrational, so we shouldn’t do it. But if the answer to the arbitrariness and irrationality is to make it easier to condemn someone to death, and results in killing more people in the name of “justice”... that’s really something to worry about.