The Georgia Supreme Court has mishandled a critical step in overseeing the death penalty, undermining a promise of evenhanded justice made 30 years ago, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reports. By law, the court must make sure every death sentence is in line with punishment in similar cases and throw out sentences that are disproportionately severe. Typically, the court’s proportionality review cites a dozen or more comparable sentences for similar crimes. The newspaper’s analysis finds the court’s reviews perfunctory and often inaccurate. Since 1982, 19 percent of cases cited by the court to justify death sentences had already been thrown out on appeal. Another 17 percent were reversed after the reviews cited them.
In one, a man won a new trial and was acquitted by a second jury that heard testimony the gun fired accidentally. Yet the high court cited Wallace’s death sentence five times after he was freed. “That’s unbelievable,” said his lawyer. “It just sounds like incompetence to me.” Chief Justice Leah Ward Sears expressed concern over the newspaper’s findings. “No member of this court would defend a flawed proportionality review,” she said. “As such, we have and are taking steps to improve the process on our end.” The Journal-Constitution examined 159 death penalty rulings by the court since 1982. Eighty percent cited at least one overturned case; in more than a third of the decisions, at least 25 percent of the cited sentences had been overturned. Norman Fletcher, who retired in 2005 after four years as chief justice, said the justices relied too much on clerks and were unaware cases had been overturned. “We did not do a good job on proportionality,” he said. “I believe the problem was we were unable to gather all the necessary data and didn’t have the resources necessary to formulate a proper analysis.”