The clock slowly ticks to 8:00 p.m. Popcorn in hand, he plops down in front of the television and quickly flips on “Criminal Minds”. He shoves in a kernel of popcorn as the show sets our scene. The clock slowly ticks to 11:45 p.m. A firm hand escorts a woman dressed in a bright orange jumpsuit into a small, sterile room. Only a large pane of glass separates her from the somber faces of witnesses, friends, and family. They whisper among each other and take their seats in the theater-like arrangement. Coarse straps are tightly pulled around her arms—he pops another kernel into his mouth. She slowly settles into the cold, slightly worn chair. The clock ticks to 11:53 p.m. Her fingers grip the armrests, as she slowly realizes that this is the last surface she will ever touch. A dark sack is placed over her recently shaved head. The doctor prepares the syringe, gently squeezing some of the slightly viscous liquid that will soon be injected. The clock reads 11:59 p.m. She tightens her grip as she senses the needle approach. The phone rings. The execution is stopped. He chomps on another kernel.
The story described is a familiar one. Movies, television shows, novels, music, and podcasts feature similar narrations, as well as stories that end in not such a happy ending. But how do we comfortably begin an honest discussion on systematic, legalized executions? The bottom line is we cannot, at least not comfortably. Death Penalty Law is simply difficult to discuss. It is a concept that rarely appears in conversation, and is actively avoided, among family, friends, and even colleagues in the legal community. Recently, however, our society has seen these conversations emerge, thanks to the popularization of impactful novels such as Just Mercy and the eruption of social movements such as Black Lives Matter. These novels and national protests kindled an open discussion about imprisonment and, more specifically, about Death Penalty Law.
Despite this recent influx of conversation opportunities, Death Penalty Law is still a difficult topic to consider. Yet, the conversation is well worth having. As Justice Brennan noted, there is no national debate “comparable to the debate about the punishment of death.” Justice Brennan’s comment identifies the need to discuss not only the specifics of a trial and verdict, but the need to complete our discussion by considering the actual imposition of the sentence. It seems like our typical idea of a “courtroom drama” rarely continues past the conviction, relevant appeals, and death row waiting period to the final, lethal injection. However, without considering the final, lethal injection, this debate is incomplete. As Justice Brennan noted, our debate must include a serious consideration of the ultimate conclusion—the death sentence.
With this national debate comes an inherent investigation into ethical, religious, or political convictions. As Bryan Stephenson remarked, “[t]he death penalty is not about whether people deserve to die for the crimes they commit. The real question of capital punishment in this country is, ‘Do we deserve to kill?’”6 This elegant and succinct question perfectly presents the internal conflict a person faces when pressed with a true and complete examination of the death penalty. Do we deserve to kill?
This Article aims to treat Death Penalty Law with a respectful and unbiased attitude, in which the author aspires to put aside personal convictions and encourages readers to do the same. Together, we will explore this controversial topic and will focus on (1) procedure and requirements for a death penalty, as outlined by Georgia statutory law; (2) review of death penalty verdicts; (3) imposition of a death sentence; (4) history of death penalty law; (5) significant death penalty cases in Georgia; (6) the decline of the death penalty in Georgia; (7) violent crime statistics; (8) possible explanations for this decline; (9) the impacts of violent crime exposure on death penalty law; and finally, (10) the future of death penalty law. This in-depth analysis will act as a “field guide” to death penalty law, and will specifically ask in what way, if any, has our exposure to violent crime affected our views on the death penalty and, by extension, have the findings by jurors been affected.
Sarah J. Foster, Comment, Making the Murderer’s Voyeurs: The Influence of Violent Crime Exposure, Social Movements, and Desensitization on Georgia’s Treatment of the Death Penalty, 72 Mercer L. Rev. 883 (2021).