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Old 06-14-2005, 07:16 AM
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Default Article: The Ultimate Penalty (Athens, GA)

The Ultimate Penalty
No local executions in 50 years, but prosecutors try

FOUND HERE: http://onlineathens.com/stories/0612...50612100.shtml

By Todd DeFeo

Eleven Athens-area convicts were executed during the 1930s.

No Athens-area inmates have received the ultimate penalty in the five decades since.

Yet, despite the 50-plus years without a local execution, area prosecutors are currently seeking the death penalty against at least seven people charged with murder and awaiting trial in Banks, Clarke and Jackson counties. And though by most accounts, prosecutors are seeking the death penalty less often, some crimes are so vile, prosecutors say the defendant deserves to die.

A pair of high-profile cases are currently in the works in the Athens-area legal system. Defendants include a man charged with gunning down a Pendergrass police officer and two men charged with stabbing to death an elderly widower in Athens.

"There is a human need for retribution sometimes," said Rick Malone, executive director of the Prosecuting Attorneys' Council of Georgia. "Punishment for your wrong is a natural human response."

Several factors led to the decline the number of inmates facing the death penalty, ranging from a ban against executing mentally retarded inmates to fewer crimes where the death penalty can be sought, Malone said. Rape, for example, was once punishable by death, but is no longer a capital offense, Malone said.

"Gradually, the statute has changed," Malone said. "The group of people who are eligible has grown smaller and that has cut back on the numbers."

There are currently six people on death row who were convicted in the Athens area. The last death sentence handed down in the region was nearly six years ago - on June 23, 1999, when a Jackson County jury sentenced Pendergrass resident Donnie Cleveland Lance to death for beating his ex-wife to death with the butt of a sawed-off shotgun.

Lance would be the first Jackson County convict executed since J.B. Reese was put to death on July 19, 1935, for rape, according to records from the state Department of Corrections.

"When you look at the death penalty, you have to look at it from all angles," said Eric Eberhardt, a former Clarke County prosecutor. "Is it the appropriate thing to do based upon what has happened to the victim and what occurred during the course of the crime?"

Statewide, there were 454 executions between 1924 and 2004, according to the corrections department. During the first 30 years of that span, 21 Athens-area inmates were put to death, all but four for murder convictions, but no one from Athens or the surrounding counties were put to death in the past 50 years.

"It's a serious thing to ask for," Northern Judicial Circuit District Attorney Bob Lavender said of the death penalty. "It's not something that you do on a whim.

"Death penalty cases are extremely expensive and cumbersome to try," Lavender said. "They tend to tie up court calendars in terms of all the hearings and the length of time they take. There are a lot of hoops to jump through. ... If I'm going through all that expense and all that trouble, I want to make sure I've got a case I'm fairly confident in."

Behind the numbers

It's been 52 years since a death penalty sentence was carried out for a Clarke County conviction.

Yet, since 1993, Clarke County prosecutors have asked for the death penalty 16 times, and they were unsuccessful in the eight cases that made it to trial. One case is still pending.

In neighboring Jackson County, prosecutors have sought the death penalty at least eight times since 1992, and of the two cases that made it to trial, prosecutors were successful in one. Two other cases are pending.

"A lot of folks think that if it's a murder, it's a death penalty case," Piedmont Circuit District Attorney Tim Madison said. "But Georgia legislation doesn't permit that. I think that's a common misconception."

Western Judicial Circuit District Attorney Ken Mauldin is seeking the death penalty against George Lee Haynes Jr. and Phillip Randy Staples, who, authorities say, broke into the southeastern Clarke County trailer home of 67-year-old George Bennett and stabbed him to death during a burglary.

The case is the first death penalty prosecution in the county since 2000.

"It was just uncalled for all the way around," Bennett's neighbor, Bob Daugherty, said of the case. Bennett "would have given them all his money had they asked for it instead of killing him."

Bound by state law, prosecutors ask jurors for the death penalty in only the most heinous crimes. In his notice to seek the death penalty, Mauldin called the murder "vile, horrible and inhuman."

But the egregiousness of a crime is only part of whether a district attorney seeks the death penalty.

"It's hard to give a definitive answer," said Eberhardt, who tried a pair of death-penalty cases while a prosecutor in Clarke County. "There are different factors that impact the decision to seek the death penalty - the severity of the crime is certainly one of the factors that comes into play. The history of the individual involved in the crime and beyond that, the nature of the victim involved" also play into the decision.

:A question of venue

Though Jackson and Clarke counties are adjacent, juries in the two counties tend to return different sentences when the death penalty is in play, based on the outcome of cases during the last 15 years.

"There's no question, (prosecutors) know it's harder to get a death sentence in Clarke County than in the adjoining area," said University of Georgia law Professor Donald Wilkes.

But it hasn't always been that way.

Between 1924 and 1954, Clarke County - along with Oglethorpe County - condemned the most inmates in the region with four each. At the same time, Walton County sent three people to the electric chair - a method of execution replaced in 2001 in Georgia.

While the death penalty may be more difficult to get today in Clarke County, Eberhardt contends it is not impossible.

"Clarke County, because of its dynamics, is a very challenging arena to seek the death penalty," he said. "But, I also firmly believe the juries of Clarke County will give the death penalty under the appropriate circumstances."

The last death penalty case tried in Clarke County was in May 2003. It ended with the defendant's acquittal.

David McQuater was charged in a 1996 home invasion and stabbing death of a 40-year-old woman in Metter. Candler County Superior Court Judge Kathy S. Palmer moved the trial to Clarke County after a mistrial in Chatham County.

But not all Clarke County residents are opposed to the death penalty.

"I just think the punishment should fit the crime," said Susan Mingledorff of Athens, a neighbor of the murdered Bennett, who she called "a good family friend."

In "horrific" crimes, prosecutors should seek the death penalty, Mingledorff says. In Bennett's case, Mingledorff's only reservation is whether the punishment is severe enough.

"I think the death penalty is not at all like the death George had to suffer," Mingledorff said. "It's too good for them. If it's lethal injection - that's so humane."

Daughtery, Mingledorff's neighbor, offered a similar sentiment, saying in slayings like Bennett's death the death penalty is warranted.

"If somebody's going to die, somebody else has got to die to pay for (the victim's) life," he said.

:A trial for life

From prosecutor to defense attorney, the death penalty changes the complexion of a case.

"It changes the entire case because it's the ultimate penalty," Jefferson attorney Walter Harvey said. "You can't leave any stone unturned in defending the case. You have to do everything conceivable to make sure you don't get the death penalty."

While a case must meet certain criteria for a prosecutor to ask for the death penalty, some are more willing to seek the punishment than others, Harvey said. To some, Wilkes contends, successfully prosecuting a death penalty case adds to an attorney's stature.

"Among prosecutors, having a death sentence or an execution - it's analogous to the notches on the gun butts of the outlaws in the (old) West," Wilkes said. "You are viewed more favorably by your fellow prosecutors if you have more death sentences or executions."

But there is no way to predict the outcome of a jury trial, prosecutors and attorneys say. While a guilty plea doesn't give prosecutors and investigators a chance to present all the evidence they've compiled, it does provide a plus.

"That's finality, closure for the victim's family," Madison said of plea agreements.

"If you get a death penalty conviction, you can pretty much count on (the fact) you're going to live with (the case) the rest of your life whether you're prosecuting it or defending it," Lavender said.

In seven of the 15 Clarke County death-penalty cases, a defendant pleaded guilty before trial. Similarly, defendants in three of the five Jackson County cases opted to plead out, rather than take their case to trial.

"That cuts back dramatically on the number of cases that went to trial as death-penalty cases," said Malone of the Prosecuting Attorneys' Council of Georgia, referring to the life-without-parole sentence, which has been an option in death penalty cases since the 1990s.

:A statewide decline

The decrease in the number of executions in the Athens area over the years mirrors a statewide trend.

Executions in Georgia date to Jan. 19, 1735, when indentured servant Alice Ryley was hanged in Savannah for the stabbing death of her master, Will Wise. While executions reached their peak during the 1930s, the number since that time has declined. But saying why isn't easy.

"We're just more reluctant than we were in the past to put people to death for committing a crime," Wilkes said. "We've moved from a system in which most murders were punished with death to a system in which only a tiny percentage were punished with death. ...

"It's become a very small part of the criminal justice system, whereas it used to loom very large," Wilkes said. "You can't put your finger on any one factor" causing the decline.

In part, the Western world has shifted away from executions and the "evolving standards of decency" make prosecutors less likely to seek the death penalty, Wilkes said.

"All of those together have brought about this slow, steady decline in the number of death sentences themselves and the number of executions ultimately," Wilkes said.

In certain areas of the state, such as around Milledgeville in central Georgia or in Mitchell County in southern Georgia, prosecutors are more likely to seek the death penalty against a defendant, Wilkes said. In Clarke County, home of the University of Georgia and more liberal in political persuasion, the death penalty is not as viable of an option, creating "arbitrariness" depending on the part of the state, Wilkes said.

"What sense does that make in terms fairness or non-discrimination? Why should the location where the murder occurs have anything to do with it? But, it does," he said.

Area inmates on death row

Six inmates in the Athens area, none from Clarke County, sit on death row in the Georgia Diagnostic and Classification Prison in Jackson:

Jackson County

Donnie Cleveland Lance

Age: 51

Conviction: Two counts murder

Crime date: Nov. 8, 1997

Sentenced: June 23, 1999

Oconee County

William Mark Mize

Age: 48

Conviction: Murder

Crime date: Oct. 16, 1994

Sentenced: Dec. 13, 1995

Elbert County

Leonard Maurice Drane

Age: 45

Conviction: Murder

Crime date: June 13, 1990

Sentenced: September 1992

Morgan County

John Washington Hightower

Age: 61

Conviction: Murder

Crime date: July 12, 1987

Sentenced: May 1988

Robert Wayne Holsey

Age: 40

Conviction: Murder

Crime date: Dec. 17, 1995

Sentenced: Feb. 13, 1997

Walton County

Michael Miller

Age: 42

Conviction: Murder

Crime date: Oct. 29, 1987

Sentenced: November 1988

Source: Georgia Department

of Corrections

Last edited by strongernow; 06-14-2005 at 07:17 AM..
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