Defense attorney Steve Bright, who arguably knows more about the death penalty than anyone in Georgia, likes to tell a story about former Virginia Gov. Douglas Wilder.
In the four years Wilder was the state's top executive, he commuted only two death sentences. One was for a man named Earl Washington. On Wilder's last day in office, Jan. 14, 1994, he signed an order that stated: "A review of the record ... demonstrate[s] that Earl Washington Jr. received a fair trial and his appeals were well represented and considered. Recently, newly discovered evidence has become available as the result of the initiatives of the Attorney General's Office. It is clear from precedent in past cases ... that there are no provisions under Virginia law whereby such newly discovered evidence can now be considered by the courts."
The inability of the courts to consider new evidence – even in a death penalty case –troubled the governor. The hunch proved fortuitous. Eight years after Wilder commuted the sentence, DNA evidence showed that Washington was the wrong guy.
Now, a similar claim has been raised in Georgia, in the case of death row inmate Troy Davis. Davis' attorneys are desperate for the courts to consider new information that suggests Davis isn't guilty of his crime. So far, though, the evidence has been ruled inadmissible.
In late September, the U.S. Supreme Court hinted it might be willing to hear Davis' appeal. But a decision from the high court, expected Oct. 6, was delayed. [For updates, click here.]
Bright, who heads the Atlanta-based Southern Center for Human Rights and has taught law at Harvard and Yale, believes the case of Earl Washington Jr. – and perhaps, one day, Troy Davis – shows the death penalty is deeply flawed.
But Bright says that beyond the stories of innocent men condemned to die, the state's seemingly more straightforward death sentences have issues, too. And with five Georgia executions scheduled in 2008 – more than were carried out in any year since 1987 – there's a lesson to be learned from each of the condemned.
"When people think about it in the abstract, they think the death penalty is appropriate for these terrible crimes," Bright says. "And yet when the cases are examined up close, there are always problems."
William Earl Lynd
Execution date: May 6
In the fall of 2007, attorneys for death row inmate William Earl Lynd caught a lucky break. Their client had run out of appeals and an execution date was about to be set. Death seemed all but certain. Then, the U.S. Supreme Court decided to review a case out of Kentucky that challenged the constitutionality of lethal injection. While the case was under consideration, lethal injections across the country would be put on hold.
For the time being, Lynd was spared.
Georgia lawmakers voted in 1999 to switch its execution method from the archaic electric chair to a seemingly more humane cocktail of drugs administered intravenously. The switch originally applied only to inmates convicted after 2000, but was later retroacted to cover all 127 inmates on Georgia's death row at the time.
Georgia had been slow to join the lethal-injection trend. In fact, it was one of the last three states to cling to the electric chair. In other ways, however, Georgia has been at the nation's forefront when it comes to all things death penalty.
In 1976, after an unprecedented four-year ban on executions, it was Georgia's statute that the U.S. Supreme Court upheld – thereby reintroducing the death penalty across the country.
And earlier this year, after the high court lifted its six-month moratorium on lethal injection – the justices determined that the drug cocktail did not constitute "cruel and unusual punishment" – Georgia earned another milestone. It was the first state to schedule an execution after the ban. Lynd's time was almost up.
Lynd was sentenced to death for the 1988 murder of his live-in girlfriend, Virginia "Ginger" Moore. High on a mix of Valium, marijuana and booze, Lynd shot Moore in the face in the bedroom of their home, then retreated to the porch. As he smoked a cigarette and allegedly contemplated suicide, Moore regained consciousness and staggered outside. Lynd shot her in the face again, then put her in the trunk of his car. After hearing her thump around, he stopped the car, popped the trunk and shot her a third time. He drove to some nearby woods in Tift County, where he buried her in a shallow grave.
After fleeing to Ohio, Lynd allegedly shot and killed another woman.
The timing of the gunshots was crucial to the case. If Moore was in fact alive after Lynd put her in the trunk, that would constitute kidnapping. And kidnapping is one of several "aggravating circumstances" that can qualify a murder defendant for the death penalty.