Mark McClain was one of 55 people convicted in 1995 of a murder involving an armed robbery. Prosecutors sought death for 16, but only McClain was sentenced to die. Georgia continues to pursue the death penalty unevenly since passing reforms three decades ago to make it more uniform, analysis by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution shows. A primary reason is the scattershot handling of a single common crime: armed-robbery murder. Some of the state’s 49 district attorneys rarely or never seek death for such murders. Others often do.
As a result, the location of the crime often drastically alters a killer’s chance of facing death. A racial dynamic exists, too: From 1995 through 2004, prosecutors were about six times more likely to seek death when an armed robber killed a white person. Prosecutors handled other death-eligible crimes much more consistently. Prosecutors who defend the system say the variation simply reflects different community values. some supporters of capital punishment say that making fewer armed-robbery murders eligible for death would focus prosecutors’ attention on the most heinous. It could also address criticism that Georgia’s penalty is costly and arbitrary. Working with University of Maryland criminologist Ray Paternoster, the Journal-Constitution analyzed a decade of armed-robbery murders with a single victim that did not involve torture, maiming, murder-for-hire, or police killing. Georgia prosecutors sought the death penalty for about one in six such armed-robbery murders. Some prosecutors behaved as if the crime were not eligible for death.