A Georgia law passed 10 years ago to keep murderers in prison longer has become a popular alternative to the death penalty for prosecutors and juries, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reports. Some 369 people have been sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole since the option became available to juries. Over the same period, the number of Georgia defendants sentenced to die has dropped from about 10 a year to four or fewer a year, said Michael Mears, who will become executive director of the Georgia Public Defender Standards Council next month.
The Cobb County case of Michael Buttram shows the law’s intended — and unintended — effects. Buttram, 34, was convicted in the shooting deaths of his 19-year-old pregnant ex-girlfriend and her mother. It was the slaying of the Atlanta stripper’s 41-year-old mother that caused prosecutor to seek the death penalty. The life- without-parole option routinely allows divided juries to agree on a verdict. That was true on Nov. 22 for the Buttram jury, Head said.
In Georgia, prosecutors may seek the death penalty if a slaying includes any of 10 circumstances. Most include a second felony during the homicide. Life without parole is an option for jurors only when prosecutors are seeking the death penalty.
The life-without-parole law has given prosecutors a defensible option for accepting a guilty plea in lieu of seeking the death penalty. Statewide, 162 inmates serving life-without-parole sentences entered guilty pleas. Nowhere has the law’s effect been more obvious than in DeKalb County, where District Attorney J. Tom Morgan said no jury had returned a death sentence since 1993. Morgan sought death sentences against 35 defendants during the decade; of the 32 cases that have been resolved, 14 defendants received life without parole.
Morgan says he tells victims’ families that life without parole is a death sentence. “It takes a little bit longer,” he said, “but it is more certain [because of appeals of death sentences].” Of the 369 people statewide sentenced to prison for life without parole, six have died in prison. The rest remain incarcerated. None has been pardoned — their only hope of release.