Ending the Death Penalty
Learn more about Ralph Mark Gilbert, Father of the Civil Rights Movement in Georgia
The Georgia NAACP opposes the Death Penalty and is working to end its application. Although some states have abolished the practice, Georgia and most other states continue to use capital punishment (the death penalty) as a sentence for some of the most serious crimes. Georgia capital punishment law may be applied to defendants 17 and older for certain homicides (including those involving rape, armed robbery, or against a peace officer, for example), as well as for airplane hijacking or treason.
Georgia become the epicenter of American death penalty policy after the U.S. Supreme Court found the uneven application of Georgia's capital punishment laws "cruel and unusual" in 1972 (Furman v. Georgia). Generally, the Court held that Georgia's laws tended to be biased against African American defendants; although Justices didn't all agree on their rationale.
This case essentially led to a nationwide moratorium on the practice, but more than 35 states -- including Georgia in 1973 -- reinstituted the death penalty by enacting new statutes that were intended to apply the sentence more fairly.
History of Death Penalty in Georgia
The first execution in Georgia was in 1735. The offender was indentured servant Alice Wyley, who had murdered her master. From 1735 to 1924, the method of execution washanging. The last hanging occurred in 1931. Between 1735 and 1931, over 500 documented hangings occurred in Georgia amongst thousands of undocumented executions of African Americans held in slavery.
The Death Penalty has roots in the history of slavery. As noted in A Short History of the American Death Penalty:
In contrast to capital punishment in the northern states, capital punishment in the South was not limited primarily to common law felonies. Rather, the death penalty was a powerful tool for keeping the slave population in submission. Crimes that interfered with the ownership of slaves were punished by death. In 1837, North Carolina, which lacked a penitentiary, had about 26 capital crimes including slave-stealing, concealing a slave with intent to free him, second conviction of inciting slaves to insurrection, and second conviction of circulating seditious literature among slaves.
This racially-influenced law-and-order mentality spilled over into other crimes: In North Carolina, stealing bank notes, "crimes against nature" ("buggery, sodomy, bestiality") and a second offense of forgery and statutory rape came to be considered capital offenses.
Racial disparity was literally written into the law with the Southern death penalty. After the Civil War, Black Codes created more crimes punishable by death for African-Americans than whites. In the 1830s, Virginia had five capital crimes for whites but an estimated 70 such crimes for black slaves.
Today, the well-documented racial disparity in death sentences has become one of the central arguments among opponents for ending capital punishment. But less discussed is the racial divide in how people view the death penalty. For example, underneath the polls showing widespread support is one of the most well-documented facts in death penalty research: that it enjoys much higher support among whites than other racial groups, especially African-Americans.
In August, 1924, the Georgia General Assembly outlawed hanging and introduced electrocution instead. Georgia then used this method until 1972, when Furman v. Georgia declared capital punishment unconstitutional. Electrocution was re-instated, along with the death penalty, in 1976 as a result of Coker v. Georgia. In 2000, the General Assembly passed a new law instituting lethal injection instead of electrocution.
Overall, 1,010 executions have occurred in Georgia since 1735, the fifth highest total in the union.