During the two-year survey period, the Georgia Court of Appeals and the Georgia Supreme Court issued well over a thousand published opinions addressing issues of criminal law and procedure.' The primary purpose of this Article is to summarize judicial decisions constituting noteworthy developments in the law. Given the scope of survey, the constraint of limited space imposed difficult choices concerning what to include. As in past years, this survey will focus on highlights, such as cases of first impression and cases presenting close or controversial issues. The Author hopes this Article will provide useful information for busy practitioners seeking to keep abreast of developments in Georgia criminal law and procedure. Beyond providing summaries of the cases, it is the further hope of the Author that the accompanying analysis and commentary will contribute to the public discourse on these important legal issues.
Of course, the body of two years' worth of criminal appellate decisions on myriad issues of law defies a general characterization. However, it is possible for a particular issue to stand out from the rest and assume a status of prominence as a "defining issue" of the period. During the survey period, several factors combined to push one issue confronting the Georgia criminal justice system to the forefront: the vexing problem of racial and socio-economic bias, both real and perceived.
The litigation that culminated with the Supreme Court of Georgia's opinion in Stephens v. State was illustrative of the difficulty inherent in the race issue and the sharp divisions to which the issue gives rise. Stephens involved allegations that prosecutors had applied the Georgia statute requiring mandatory life imprisonment for two-time drug offenders disproportionately against African-American defendants. The Stephens saga involved a bitter and complex legal debate, allegations of racism and the hard feelings such charges engender, fears of paralyzing the criminal justice system with endless litigation, and concerns over hindering the fight against crime. As will be discussed below, the Georgia Supreme Court acknowledged there was an apparent problem, but declined to impose a judicial solution. The court's decision shifted the debate to the halls of the legislature where something remarkable happened: Despite political trends towards ever-tougher penalties for drug crimes, the legislature eliminated the mandatory life term for two-time drug offenders, thereby defusing the explosive issue raised in Stephens. The controversy represented the most prominent legal debate of the survey period. The ultimate outcome of the controversy represented a meaningful step towards reducing the perception of racial unfairness in the Georgia criminal justice system.
James P. Fleissner, Criminal Law and Procedure: A Two-Year Survey, Annual Survey of Georgia Law, 48 Mercer L. Rev. 219 (1996).