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Ga. Remains Center of Death Controversy

Nnpa | 10/3/2011, 5:36 p.m.
Troy Anthony Davis/Courtesy Photo

A study of 2,000 potential death penalty cases in Georgia led by Professor David Baldus of the University of Iowa found that the odds of receiving the death penalty in Georgia were 4.3 times greater if the defendant killed a White person than if he had killed an African-American. A report prepared for the American Bar Association found the multiplier was 4.4 in North Carolina and 5.5 in Mississippi.

While race matters, it's not the only thing that matters.

A 2007 investigation by the Cincinnati Enquirer found that judges on the U.S. court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit, which covers Ohio, Kentucky and Tennessee, voted consistently along party lines. Judge Nathaniel Jones, who retired from the circuit, told the Enquirer: "It's a roll of the dice. When I look at a lineup of a panel in this kind of case, you can almost go to the bank on what the result is going to be."

And the numbers support that view.

The newspaper figures show that federal judges appointed by George H.W. Bush voted 50-4 against granting inmates' capital murder appeals. Appointees of George W. Bush voted 34-5 against granting such appeals. Reagan judges voted 39-13 against the requests. By contrast, Carter appointees voted 31-4 in favor of granting inmates' appeals. Bill Clinton's appointees were not as firm, voting 75-32 in favor of the appeals.

"Statistics like these do not prove that judges' decisions are influenced by their political leanings, but the stark contrast in outcomes strongly suggests that judgments in death penalty cases are subjective and influenced by other factors that interject a high degree of arbitrariness into the process," concluded a report by the Death Penalty Information Center titled, "Struck by Lightning: The Continuing Arbitrariness of the Death Penalty."

Still other factors also determine the fate of murder suspects.

"The system is too fraught with variables to survive," observed H. Lee Sarokin, a retired federal appeals court judge. "Whether or not one receives the death penalty depends upon the discretion of the prosecutor who initiates the proceeding, the competence of counsel who represents the defendant, the race of the victim, the race of the defendant, the make-up of the jury, the attitude of the judge, and the attitude and make-up of the appellate courts that review the verdict."

The next execution in Georgia is scheduled for Wednesday, Oct. 12, exactly two weeks after Troy Davis was put to death in Jackson, Ga. Both Angela Sizemore, the victim in that case, and Marcus Ray Johnson, the man convicted of murdering her, are White.

Don't expect any all-night vigils in support of Johnson. Do not look for any signs proclaiming, "I am Marcus Johnson." And don't expect protests in Paris or anywhere else proclaiming Johnson's innocence.

According to a summary of the case filed with the United States Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit, in the early morning hours of March 24, 1994 Johnson met Sizemore at Fundamentals, a west Albany bar. Sizemore had attended a memorial for an acquaintance the previous day and had been drinking so heavily that the bartender stopped serving her. Witnesses said Johnson was deeply upset that another woman had spurned his advances early in the evening.