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The fading penalty of death



NoteI wrote this on spec for a Georgia magazine. They passed. 

As the numbers of death sentences and executions continue their free fall in the United States, Georgia led the country in executions last year with nine, setting a state record for the most executions in one year. Texas, which has killed 542 people since 1973 and has executed more people since 1973 than the next six states combined, killed only seven people last year.

The surge occurred because Georgia had put executions on hold several times in the past four years as it changed the drugs administered, fought a challenge to a law that keeps the source of drugs secret, and replaced a stock of drugs that had solidified, according to the Chicago Tribune. In the meantime, several people on death row had exhausted all of their appeals and their sentences could be carried out.

The spike in Georgia is unusual, given the sharp decline in executions. Nationwide, the modern peak was 98 executions in 1999. Since then, the number has tumbled to only 20 in 2016, according to the nonprofit Death Penalty Information Center in Washington, D.C.

There are several factors that might slow the execution rate even further.

Drug makers balk at lethal use

One is practical. It’s getting harder and harder to find the needed drugs because pharmaceutical companies are under intense public pressure to stop allowing their drugs to be used to kill people. Since 1975, lethal injection has accounted for 1,274 executions, followed distantly by electrocution at 158.

Last month, Arkansas wanted to execute eight people in 10 days because its supply of midazolam, a chemical in its lethal injection , was about to expire and the state wasn’t sure it could get more.  Midazolam, a sedative, is a substitute for more effective drugs that are now in short supply.

Many debate whether midazlam is effective enough.

U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote in her dissent in a recent Alabama death row inmate’s appeal  that, “like a hangman’s poorly tied noose or a malfunctioning electric chair, midazolam might render our latest method of execution too much for our conscience — and the Constitution — to bear.”

While Arkansas juggled last-minute appeals and court injunctions, it also was sued by McKesson Corp., one of the nation’s largest pharmaceutical distributors, to stop the state from using one of the drugs it sells.

McKesson alleges that the Arkansas Department of Corrections illegally obtained anesthesia drug Vecuronium in July 2016 by not disclosing it was buying the drug with the intent to execute prisoners, according to KFSM-TV in Little Rock. McKesson, which sells drugs for other companies, cannot sell the drug to federal and state correctional facilities that engage in capital punishment.

The same shortage of effective lethal drugs is plaguing other states, too. Thus, Oklahoma is bringing back the gas chamber; Utah is reviving the firing squad; and Tennessee is reconnecting the electric chair.

But in Georgia, the electric chair is off limits.

In a 4-3 decision in 2001, the Georgia Supreme Court said that death by electrocution “inflicts purposeless physical violence and needless mutilation that makes no measurable contribution to accepted goals of punishment. … Electrocution, with its specter of excruciating pain and its certainty of cooked brains and blistered bodies, violates the prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment.”

Innocence on death row

Another reason for the penalty’s decline, according to a recent article in The New York Times, is that judges are willing to give defendants every benefit of the doubt in their appeals because of the system’s spotty track record.  Since 1976, more than 155 people on death row were proved to be innocent, including six in Georgia and two in South Carolina. In Florida, 26 people were found to be innocent.

Norman Fletcher was Georgia’s chief justice in 2001 when the court ruled that the electric chair was unconstitutional. Since his retirement in 2011, Fletcher has become a vocal opponent of the death penalty in general and Georgia’s appeals process in particular.

In a recent opinion piece in the New York Times, Fletcher wrote that Georgia stands nearly alone as a state that does not require legal representation throughout the appeals process.

“Perhaps the biggest problem with Georgia’s system, and one of the reasons the state carries out so many executions, is that it often fails to provide people with lawyers,” Fletcher wrote.

While Fletcher was presiding justice in 1999, the court considered an appeal of a post-conviction hearing for Exzavious Gibson, who was 17 when he committed his crime.

Gibson had an opportunity to argue that he did not receive adequate representation during his trial, but, ironically, no volunteer attorney was available to file that appeal.

“Mr. Gibson, who was poor and apparently, from the records, intellectually disabled and afflicted by acute mental health problems, was forced to represent himself. That sham of a proceeding is one of the most deplorable vignettes in Georgia’s legal history,” Fletcher wrote.

The Georgia court decided, 4-3, that people with death-penalty convictions have no right to counsel at the post-conviction stage — a ruling still in force today.

“There can be no doubt that actually innocent persons have been executed in this country,” Fletcher said.

Too often, Fletcher contends, budgetary issues, race and politics factor into the decision-making of whether to seek the death penalty.

Shifting public opinion

The third possible death knell for capital punishment is waning public support. The New York Times reports that support for the death penalty is at its lowest level since the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated it in 1976.

A Gallup poll released last fall said 60 percent of respondents said they support capital punishment, down 9 points since 2007 and 20 points since its peak in 1994. Half of respondents believe the death penalty is applied fairly, the lowest level in the question’s 17-year history. Forty-four percent believe it is applied unfairly, the highest level in 17 years.

A Pew Poll this year found that support for the death penalty had dropped to 49 percent, marking the first time support had dropped below 50 percent since 1971.

Gallup’s report said, “This is reflected in, or perhaps the force behind, changes in death penalty laws in recent years, with a total of 12 states abolishing the death penalty or imposing a moratorium in the last decade alone.”

American courts imposed 30 death sentences last year, down from the peak of 315 in 1996, the New York Times reported. Georgia has imposed only one death sentence in the past four years.

A recent poll by NBC News showed that if injection is no longer available,42 percent of Americans polled said the death penalty should be discontinued. Twenty percent favored switching to the gas chamber, 18 percent the electric chair, 12 percent a firing squad and 8 percent hanging.

More reasons for the declining support for the death penalty is the expense and the lack of effect on crime rates.

Proponents of the death penalty argue that the ultimate punishment deters others from committing crimes. That isn’t true, according to the Death Penalty Information Center. A 2009 poll it commissioned found police chiefs ranked the death penalty last among ways to reduce violent crime. The police chiefs also considered the death penalty the least efficient use of taxpayers’ money.

For these reasons, we might just be hearing the last gasps for the death penalty in several more states.

Georgia’s execution history

Georgia has employed capital punishment since colonial times, with executions recorded as early as 1735. Crimes punishable by capital punishment in Georgia have included murder, robbery, rape, horse stealing, and aiding a runaway slave.

The first Georgia execution by electric chair was carried out in 1924 and the method quickly replaced hanging. The last hanging was in 1931. Before 1976, Georgia carried out 950 executions, the fourth-highest number of any state. Since the death penalty, Georgia has executed 69 people, the sixth most in the country.

Georgia’s two chairs:

  • ‘Old Sparky’ was used from 1924 until 1980. Painted white, it is on display at Georgia State Prison in Reidsville.
  • Chair two, a squat, varnished version, was used from 1980 until 2001, when the state ruled it unconstitutional. That chair is stored in a closet near the death chamber at the Georgia Diagnostic and Classification Center in Jackson. There are 67 men on death row in Georgia.

The story of Lena Baker

Lena Baker was an African-American maid in Cuthbert, Ga., who was convicted of killing her white employer, Ernest Knight, and sentenced to death in 1944 after a four-hour trial in which no defense was presented on Baker’s behalf, according to NPR.  She was executed  in 1945, the only woman in Georgia to be electrocuted.

At the time of the trial, a local newspaper reported that Baker was held as a “slave woman” by Knight, and that she shot him in self defense during a struggle. In 2005, 60 years after her execution, the state of Georgia granted Baker a full and unconditional pardon. A biography was published about Baker in 2001, and it was adapted for the feature film, “The Lena Baker Story,” in 2008, which was shown at Cannes Film Festival.

Executed for a crime she didn’t commit

Kelly Gissendaner, 47, is the only woman Georgia has executed since the death penalty was reinstated in 1983. She died Sept. 30, 2015, by lethal injection after exhausting appeals in her conviction for contracting her boyfriend to kill her husband, Douglas Gissendaner in 1997. Her boyfriend agreed to a plea bargain in exchange for testifying against Gissendaner. She is the only person Georgia has executed since 1976 for a murder she didn’t actually commit.

Georgia cases halt, and restart, executions in U.S.

It was cases originating in Georgia that caused the U.S. Supreme Court to halt the death penalty in 1972 because of unequal application and to restore the death penalty four years later.

Furman v. Georgia and two cases from Texas where two rapists were condemned to death, halted the death penalty in the United States. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled, 5-4, in 1972 that the death penalty violated the Eighth Amendment prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment and Fourteenth Amendment prohibitions against discrimination because it had been imposed in a seemingly random and inconsistent manner, according to

In that case, William Furman had broken into a home when the resident discovered him. He tried to escape, but tripped and fell. The gun that he was carrying went off and killed the resident of the home. He was convicted of murder and sentenced to death, according to

The court found that the death sentences in the three cases were inconsistently applied and ruled the penalty unconstitutional.

Four years later, the U.S. Supreme Court in Gregg vs. Georgia ruled, 7-2, that the death penalty in and of itself is not cruel and unusual punishment. It said that careful and judicious use of the death penalty may be appropriate. Today, 31 states have death penalties on their books.


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Finding the right combination

1101151209a_HDRI’ve encountered two online applications this week that stood out from the crowd. I’m not sure if the questions they asked helped tease out whether someone would be a good employee or not, but they certainly identify people with whom you’d like to dine.

One asked about where one gets their news and what were the last three books one read. I think that question is more revealing than what one’s favorite book is. I wouldn’t trust any answer provided because people have carefully researched the right response. But the last three books one read? If answered truthfully, that would really provide great insight of a person.

The other application felt very intrusive and personal. “What is your goal in life? How do you describe a life well lived? How do you determine if someone is successful? How would this position move you closer to your life goals?” I don’t think “it would allow me to eat, which is a basic life goal” is the answer they’re looking for.

At the very least, I would have preferred to have waited until the second interview (date?) to have revealed things I haven’t told anyone but my closest confidante. I bared my soul and I doubt I’ll ever hear back. I wonder where THAT application will end up in cyberspace.

I also received my first rejection that I’m certain was from a computer. I had completed my application only the day before when I received an email that said that due to the large number of applicants, they would be pursuing other applicants with blah, blah, blah. I am pretty confident that a person didn’t read my application.

It seems as though I have to push the right buttons in the right order to get into drive. Can anyone help me with the code?



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You Get What You Give, Part 2

I said in  the last blog that I would give examples of companies who do a great job of recruiting talented, professional employees.

The first step, in my mind, is to be talented and professional yourself and that should begin with your website. It might not be true, but it’s nice to read how a company cares about its employees, nurtures them and prepares them to move up in the company.

It helps to see what benefits are offered, no matter how meager. It shows that the company shares information.

The next step is to be responsive to all who apply for a posted position, or send off an unsolicited resume in the hopes of landing a job with your company. Of course, the adage of you get what you give applies there, too. Applicant, if you click off a generic cover letter and a bland resume, you really don’t deserve the respect of a reply.

I even appreciate an automated response that indicates the company received my application and they will be in touch if I clear a few minimum hurdles. (See paragraph above.)

For example, I applied for a post on Monday this week and received a personalized email on Wednesday saying they had selected their core candidates and I wasn’t one of them. That’s OK. They respected my effort and replied. Kudos, Ms. Manager, kudos.

Should communication continue, make sure your email has a default signature so the recipient knows where you fall in the food chain and how to reach you by phone. Yes, you have to make yourself minimally accessible. That’s your job — communicating on occasion with living, breathing people. I have received cryptic emails signed by people like “Debbie” or “Mike.” No offensive attended, I’m sure you’re important and well known by cubicle dwellers twice or thrice removed but I have no idea who you are. My reply is going to be guarded at best, absent at worst.

In short, to recruit talented people who will elevate and advance your company, give it your best effort. Share information, present a professional website and respond early and often.  You really don’t know either who is on the other end of that email. It could be your next boss.

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Case studies in You Get What You Give

Cover of "Stuck in Neutral"

Cover of Stuck in Neutral

As I said, I’ve cast a few lines in the water seeking full-time work. What I’ve pulled out of the water has been a little frightening.

I understand our economy has been stuck in neutral at best for several years now. Yeah, economists say the recession ended in 2009 because the growth needle stuck a toe out of negative numbers, but I don’t think most people believe it. The ole USA ain’t what she used to be and people detect the scent of decay in the wind.

In those rare instances that a professional job opens up, dozens will pounce on it. Sometimes I’m one of them.

In most cases, what I’ve gotten in response to my professionalism and well-crafted, individually written cover letters is appalling.

The lackadaisical, unprofessional responses are astonishing. Do those responsible for hiring expect to get the ax any time now so they figure why put forth any effort? Are they trying to warn away others from joining their godforsaken company? Or are they just that sure that they can treat people like dirt and they’ll take it?

I can’t hazard a guess. It makes no sense to me.

Thus far, I can recount three case studies of how not to conduct recruitment of a mid-level manager.

I’m going to call this series You Get What You Give.

I’m not naming any names, nor will I. I figure the parties in question are beyond help so I hope these tales will prompt those on the brink of moribund to look a little livelier.

Case No. 1 — A wall of silence

I was contacted to arrange a phone interview for a department head position. The call arrived at the appointed time and the person who would be my boss and I talked for at least an hour. I thought we hit it off and he said he would be in touch.

Days pass. Then weeks. I send an email to check the progress of the selection. Nothing.

I finally called him and caught him. I figured leaving a message would be a waste of time. At this point, I wouldn’t work for someone so rude, but I wanted an answer. I wanted to know whether I didn’t measure up or whether they thought I was qualified but the position was put on hold. Big difference.

“So, Joe or Sam or Billy, how is your search coming along?”

“Oh. We’re still considering candidates but should decide next week. I‘ll let you know.”

That was the last contact I had with the company.

Really? I spent an hour with you and you can’t give me the courtesy of a reply?

I was someone they were trying to lure to their company. I can only imagine how they treat staff once employees are beholden to them. Yikes.

Next week: An example of how to recruit excellent candidates. I don’t have a personal example, but certainly there is one out there.

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What I learned today — Santee is small but sassy

The best part of my day was trying to unravel the team that put Santee, S.C., on the golf destination map.

My assignment is to write about the town of 800 as a golf destination, the likes of Myrtle Beach or Jacksonville — even Branson, Mo., makes more sense.

But, my, that town has chutzpa. I encountered three different websites that tout the area’s golf bona fides, quite a feat since there are only three courses in city limits, but 10 more within 20 miles.

One website lists contact information for Santee Tourism. It all funnels to city (village? town? burg?) hall, which, by the way, has an office in Canada. Really? Wow!

So my work to get to the bottom of this continues. Yes, I think a trip is in order. I’ve gotta see this for myself.

As it stands now, my lede is likely going to be along the lines of:

You know that scrappy, insane little terrier that has no concept of its size and it routinely backs down German shepherds (“eek!” the big dog thinks, “this odd-looking squirrel is on crystal meth kibble!”)? That’s Santee, S.C. But the shepherd in this case is Myrtle Beach. Rowf!

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