Lethal injection under scrutiny

Late last month, condemned killers due to be executed in Alabama and Texas received reprieves while the U.S. Supreme Court considers a Kentucky case challenging lethal injection.

Like Georgia, those are conservative Southern states with a history of strong support for the death penalty.

Unlike Alabama and Texas, however, Georgia is still planning two executions during the next two weeks via lethal injection.

Absent any word to the contrary either from the courts or the state Board of Pardons and Paroles, Georgia will carry out those death sentences this Friday and the following Tuesday.

"What is the urgency?" state Rep. Stephanie Stuckey Benfield, D-Decatur, asked last week. "Why do these people have to be put to death now?

"Texas executes more people than anywhere in the country, and they're putting their executions on hold."

But Georgia's determination to proceed isn't altogether surprising considering the tough stand the state's political leaders typically take toward capital punishment.

This year in the General Assembly, for example, lawmakers came close to enacting a bill that would have allowed convicted murderers to be sentenced to death on less-than-unanimous jury votes.

The bill, inspired by a Gwinnett County case, passed the House but didn't make it out of the Senate.

It would have allowed juries to recommend death sentences for capital crimes, even if one or two members of a jury voted to spare the life of the killer. The measure gave the final say in sentencing to judges.

The bill was strongly criticized by death penalty opponents. Among other things, they cited a growing number of cases across the country in which death row inmates are being exonerated through the use of DNA technology that wasn't around when the crimes they were found guilty of were committed.

Sara Totonchi, public policy director for the Atlanta-based Southern Center for Human Rights, said that while wrongly convicted defendants can be freed if they're still in prison, those who have been executed can't be brought back to life.

"The death penalty is too permanent an option to use irresponsibly," she said.

Benfield said that's why she supports legislation introduced this year by Sen. Preston Smith, R-Rome, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Smith's legislation, which passed the Senate overwhelmingly but died in the House, would have made it easier for prosecutors to seek a sentence of life in prison without parole for murder defendants.

Under current law, life without parole is only allowed as an alternative in cases in which the district attorney originally pushed for the death penalty.

Smith's bill would allow prosecutors who don't believe capital punishment is appropriate in a given case to still seek life without parole.

The legislation was pitched in the Senate by conservative Republicans as a get-tough measure, a way to make sure that criminals who can't be rehabilitated are put behind bars for good.

But Benfield said it also would let prosecutors seek stiff sentences for convicted murderers without killing them.

"We'll never have a perfect system," she said. "It's not perfect to the point that I'm comfortable handing down the ultimate penalty."

However, the debate over lethal injection isn't about whether the person charged with the crime is guilty.

In the Kentucky case, the plaintiffs are claiming that the three-drug mixture used violates the constitutional prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment.

They argue that the first drug, a sedative, fails to render the condemned fully unconscious, which causes excruciating pain when the second and third drugs are administered.

However, the inmate is paralyzed and thus unable to communicate what's happening, so the execution looks as if it's being carried out in a humane manner.

Georgia and many other states use the same three-drug mixture.

The flap over lethal injections points to the challenges states face in attempting to carry out the death penalty.

Georgia switched to lethal injection early in this decade, joining a host of other states, because of objections to electrocution. Opponents cited numerous instances of botched executions using the electric chair.

Now, at least 13 states have put executions on hold due to concerns over lethal injection, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.

In Georgia, the Board of Pardons and Paroles is due to take up an appeal of the first of the two planned executions on Monday.

Lawyers for Jack Alderman, convicted of murdering his 20-year-old wife in Chatham County in 1974, also are asking the state Supreme Court to intervene.

"We're relying on the Georgia Supreme Court to do the right thing and stop executions in Georgia, at least until the U.S. Supreme Court considers the Kentucky case," Totonchi said.

E-mail Dave Williams at dave.williams@gwinnettdailypost.com.