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Is the death penalty dying?

Angi Idel discusses the death penalty and her late son David Heath Jackson

25-year old David Heath Jackson was shot and killed at his home by an intruder in September 2010. Jackson's mother Angi Idel discusses her family's decision to accept a plea bargain for the accused killer Ricardo Strozier, and avoid the pain of a
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25-year old David Heath Jackson was shot and killed at his home by an intruder in September 2010. Jackson's mother Angi Idel discusses her family's decision to accept a plea bargain for the accused killer Ricardo Strozier, and avoid the pain of a

Heath Jackson’s mother finally had to let it go.

Angi Yarbrough Idel and her murdered son’s siblings sat through days of pretrial hearings for Ricardo Strozier, a daytime burglar who was working the Lakebottom Park area when Jackson came home for lunch Sept. 7, 2010, at the house he rented on Carter Avenue at 17th Street, and found Strozier inside.

Armed with a gun he took from a home in the same neighborhood, Strozier tried to tie Jackson up with a sheet. He previously had bound another victim who walked in on him.

Jackson struggled free and tried to run away. Strozier gunned him down from behind.

Strozier was charged with murder, armed robbery, aggravated battery and multiple counts of burglary. District Attorney Julia Slater declared she would seek the death penalty.

That engaged the Georgia Public Defender Council Office of the Capital Defender, and Georgia’s Unified Appeals Procedure, which tries to head off all possible appeals before trial, with a checklist of issues that could overturn a conviction.

It includes possible defenses, the defendant’s psychological status, jury demographics, and other factors.

Some of the pretrial hearings on Jackson’s murder involved the demographics of the jury pool, and whether it was representative of the city at large. A defendant sentenced to death by a jury that’s not of his peers, demographically, may appeal.

An issue beyond juror demographics was pretrial prejudice: During Strozier’s hearings, cameras were in the courtroom.

His attorneys dug into how their client would appear on TV, in print and online: If Strozier wore a jail uniform, he would look guilty and prejudice prospective jurors. Also if he wore chains. Also if deputies made him wear a clearly visible Taser-like shock device to prevent escape. Also if too many deputies were crowded around him in the courtroom, making him appear dangerous.

All of this has reason: Because the state and thus the public is the executioner, death penalty cases get the most scrutiny; they cost more time, money and effort; and DNA exonerations show prosecutors and juries can get them wrong.

But that intense scrutiny wears on victims’ families.

In Judge Gil McBride’s courtroom on the Columbus Government Center’s 11th floor, Angi Idel and her family watched this play out, hour after hour. The suspect’s rights seemed the court’s only concern, to them.

“They brought him new clothes, they were always starched, and he got to take his jail clothes off,” she recalled in an interview last week, adding Strozier’s restraints were removed, too. “And I’m thinking, ‘We are a victim’s family here and we are not getting asked anything. We’re not getting asked how we feel.’”

Death in decline

Though Georgia led the nation with nine executions last year, they are in decline nationwide, as are death-penalty prosecutions.

Many factors play into that. One is the option of life without parole.

Georgia law long held that a defendant could get life without parole only if prosecutors sought the death penalty and the jury chose life instead. Georgia changed the law in 2009, allowing prosecutors to seek life without parole alone.

Death sentences dropped.

“Although life without parole was available beginning in 1993, this sentence could only be imposed if the state had previously filed its intention to seek the death penalty,” District Attorney Julia Slater wrote in an email last week, noting other changes in the code:

“Prior to the mid-1990s, an inmate serving a life sentence for murder was eligible for parole after seven years. In the mid-1990s the minimum amount of time an inmate would serve on murder before being eligible for parole increased to 14 years. Currently, a convicted murderer serving a life sentence must serve 30 years before being eligible for parole.”

The numbers

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled Georgia’s death penalty law unconstitutional in 1972, saying its application was too arbitrary. Executions nationwide dropped to zero as states waited to see what the court would rule next. Georgia amended its statute, and the Supreme Court approved the new version in 1976.

Executions resumed, the next in 1977.

Figures from the Death Penalty Information Center show executions nationwide started slowly, with two in 1979 and five in 1983, but few between.

Then they picked up: 21 in 1984; 38 in 1993; 56 in ’95; and 74 in ’97.

They peaked at 98 in 1998, dropped to 85 the next year and then to 66 the year after that. The total fluctuated until it hit 52 in 2009. It steadily has decreased since, with 20 last year.

Georgia currently has 58 people on death row at the Georgia Diagnostic & Classification Prison in Jackson, among them four Muscogee County inmates: Carlton Gary, Johnnie Worsley, Ward Brockman, and Leon Tollette.

That Gary, the convicted “Stocking Strangler” who beat, raped and strangled older women in 1977 and ’78, is now back in Muscogee Superior Court on appeal – 30 years after his conviction – weighed on Angi Idel’s mind as she considered how long Ricardo Strozier’s appeals could go on.

Idel was in high school when the stranglings terrorized Columbus, and remembers them well. Her son was a distant relative of the first victim, Fern Jackson, whose old home was just down 17th Street east of the house he rented.

The defense

Another legal alteration affecting the death penalty in Georgia is the capital public defender, part of a 2005 overhaul of the state’s system for providing legal counsel to indigent defendants.

Before that reform, suspects were lucky to get a competent lawyer appointed to represent them, said Jack Martin, who specializes in death penalty cases and represents Gary. He also represented William Sallie, the last to be executed in Georgia, on Dec. 6, 2016. Sallie was sentenced to die in 1991.

Robert Wadkins Sr., who took charge of the public defender’s office here after the 2005 reform, has been involved in nine death penalty cases, including those of Columbus death-row inmates Tollette and Worsley.

He said another reason prosecutors are reluctant to pursue capital cases is the fight the capital public defender puts up.

“Prosecutors don’t want to deal with that well-oiled machine,” he said, of a death penalty case adding, “It has to be vigorously defended, and these guys know what they’re doing.”

They know the Unified Appeals Procedure, and they’ll use any piece they can to protect their client, as they are charged to do.

“That’s a whole different ballgame,” Wadkins said of the procedure, noting every possible appellate issue must be addressed. “It’s quite a bit larger undertaking.”

One matter to cover is any possible self-defense claim. That came up in Ricardo Strozier’s pretrial hearings, when defense attorneys theorized Heath Jackson had a weapon stashed somewhere, and Strozier feared he was going for it.

The insinuation Strozier felt any threat from her unarmed son – shot in the back while running away – stunned Angi Idel and her family.

The Unified Appeals Procedure takes months of hearings, with testimony, arguments, briefs and responses, and then more hearings, arguments, briefs and responses.

The pending case

Columbus’ only pending death-penalty case is in the process now.

Brandon David Conner is accused of repeatedly stabbing his 32-year-old girlfriend Rosella “Mandy” Mitchell and killing their 6-month-old son Dylan Ethan Conner before setting their 1324 Winifred Lane home afire on Aug. 21, 2014.

He had a hearing Friday before Judge William Rumer, with defense attorneys Mark Shelnutt and William Kendrick arguing Conner’s initial arrest for lying to police should be thrown out, because prosecutors failed to submit a certified copy of that law during earlier hearings.

The state has to prove the law exists to prove police were justified in arresting Conner for breaking it, they said, claiming Slater waited too late to put the law into evidence, and under the schedule outlined by the Unified Appeals Procedure, the evidence was closed.

The Unified Appeals Procedure not only is like holding the trial before the trial, but like appealing the outcome, too. If either side disagrees with the judge’s rulings, it can appeal to a higher court.

The expense

All this time and effort add to the price of putting someone to death. Some rural judicial systems just can’t afford it now, Wadkins said.

Another cost is the jury. For a murder trial in which the prosecution seeks only a life sentence, the county assembles a pool of around 60 potential jurors, whom the attorneys sift through in a day or two.

For a capital case, the pool grows to around 150, and jury selection starts by sending them a written questionnaire so the court can compile demographic data as well as matters of possible prejudice.

Because the jury pool is expected to be representative of the community at large, Muscogee County in 2012 started using a vendor to assemble jury lists from sources such as the state driver’s license and state photo ID database.

At one time jury lists were made of registered voters. Columbus Jury Manager Marsha Coram said she still gets calls from people summoned who want to point out that they’re not registered to vote.

The per diem check jurors get for serving hardly covers lunch, but issue 150 for a death-penalty jury pool that takes days to sort through, and they add up.

District Attorney Julia Slater could offer no precise estimate on costs.

“To prosecute a death penalty case a DA’s office must use a vast amount of its most valuable resource, personnel, to handle the intricacies of death penalty prosecution,” she wrote. “When active, a death penalty case requires about four members of the DA’s staff. Before the trial, these staff members work on preparing the case for indictment, filing and responding to motions, representing the state at motion hearings, researching and writing briefs on legal issues, and preparing the case for trial.

“Additionally, the jury selection and trial itself are, of course, extremely time consuming,” she added. “Very large DA’s offices have a dedicated capital litigation team. Without such a team, the employees working on a death penalty case are necessarily spending time that would otherwise be spent of other cases in the DA’s office.”

Politics

Wadkins cites another factor in falling death penalty cases: “It used to be more political than it is now.”

The voters don’t demand it anymore, so politicians don’t push it.

Sometimes a high-profile murder with gruesome evidence gets the public’s blood up, but one fatal shooting or domestic killing among dozens does not: “There are so many murders that happen now, that it’s not a rare occurrence,” he said.

Jack Martin, Gary’s attorney, thought part of that political shift came from conservatives who don’t believe the government can manage capital punishment any better than its other endeavors.

Some evidence of that is in its application, Martin said: “It’s just unpredictable and irrational.”

Someone who killed a single victim with a gun gets executed. Someone convicted of multiple crimes involving more gruesome details lives years more, the case on appeal.

Martin thought also that news of death-row inmates exonerated by DNA evidence made people more skeptical of the death penalty.

Wadkins didn’t think that true of juries: You can’t tell jurors in your closing argument that your client will be cleared by DNA evidence 10 years later, he said: “They’d just laugh at you then.”

Some defense attorneys regularly tell jurors that police were negligent in not testing more evidence for DNA or fingerprints, a sort of “CSI” defense playing on what people see in TV crime shows.

The appeals

Another factor in the death penalty’s decline: The time after the time – after the trial, as victims’ families wait for what happens next. And next. And next.

After the pretrial Unified Appeals Procedure hearings, after jury selection, after the trial, after the conviction, the victim-impact testimony, and the sentence, come the appeals, state and federal.

For evidence of how long that can take, Columbus need consider only Carlton Gary, now back in Muscogee Superior Court seeking a new trial or new sentence, a generation later.

Angi Idel began to think of generations as she sat in court during Ricardo Strozier’s pretrial hearings. She heard the district attorney say that what Strozier did to her son was “dismemberment.”

At the time she had three grandchildren, then ages 8, 6 and 4, the daughters of Heath’s brother Hunter, four years the elder. Uncle Heath doted on the girls. He used to go to their elementary school and bring them lunch.

If Strozier’s appeals lingered as long as other condemned killers, her granddaughters would grow up hearing how their uncle died, she thought. That would become their memory of him: “That’s all they would know.”

The weekend of Mother’s Day, 2013, she felt a sudden peace, she said, and decided to accept Strozier’s pleading guilty May 24, 2013, for a sentence of life without parole. She does not regret it.

“For me, to put him away with life without parole, with no appeals, that was enough for me. I could put him to rest.... I’m so thankful I accepted the plea, because I really never want to see him again.”

Today she thinks the death penalty should be abolished. The extended hearings and subsequent appeals just further torture the victims’ families, not the killer: “Why would you want to continually go through that?”

Today she has two more grandchildren, each named for their late uncle.

Her daughter Hannah, born four years after Heath, has a son named Moses Heath. Her son Hunter has a boy named Kaden Heath.

In 2012, Idel started a support group for parents who’ve lost children, the Healing Hearts Support Group. It’s on Facebook.

“It’s unfortunate that lot of us have been victims, and because of that, we have children who are no longer with us.... We’re just trying to make it. None of us chose this.”

Capital Crimes

These are the crimes punishable by death in Georgia:

Treason

Aircraft hijacking.

Murder, with these aggravating circumstances:

  • The offender has a prior capital conviction.
  • The offender was committing another capital crime, aggravated battery, burglary, or first-degree arson.
  • The offender used a weapon or device that could significant harm more than one person at once.
  • The offender committed the crime for money or was hired to kill.
  • The victim was a judicial officer, district attorney, or solicitor general killed for work-related reasons.
  • The murder was outrageously or wantonly vile, involving torture, depravity of mind, or an aggravated battery.
  • The victim was a law enforcement officer, corrections worker or firefighter performing official duties.
  • The offender was in the custody of, or had escaped from, law enforcement or prison.
  • The offender was resisting arrest.
  • The offender had a prior conviction for rape, aggravated sodomy, aggravated child molestation, or aggravated sexual battery.
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