An Ode to Black Women Capital Defense Attorneys

By Terrica Ganzy, SCHR Deputy Director

Elaine Jones was counsel of record in Furman v. Georgia, the landmark United States Supreme Court case that abolished the death penalty in 37 states in 1972. She was one of the first Black females to defend people on death row. Almost five decades later, the ranks of Black women who defend people charged with or convicted of capital crimes has grown, but the numbers are still far too low. Today, as Black History Month comes to a close, we pay tribute to this cadre of women who stand in the gap for people who society would otherwise discard.

The Calling

“When I dare to be powerful, to use my strength in the service of my vision, then it becomes less and less important whether I am afraid.” – Audre Lorde

Being a capital defense attorney is hard. The hours are long, the work is born of tragedy, the stakes are the highest possible, and the pay compared to the effort is low. This is not a profession that one chooses simply to have a job. It is a calling: a calling of strength, a calling of conviction, a calling of sacrifice, a calling of love.

It is a calling of strength because so often capital defense attorneys are subjected to the anger and hate directed at their clients. Acknowledging that anger, protecting their client from it, and working to transform anger to mercy requires a certain inner strength. It is a calling of conviction because standing on principle at times is all that sustains the capital defense attorney through repeated denials of relief despite obvious injustice. It is a calling of sacrifice because fighting to save someone’s life can take a mental and physical toll. It is a calling of love because one cannot do this work without a love for humanity, dignity, and justice.

The calling of capital defense applies to all capital defense attorneys regardless of demographics. We choose to celebrate black women attorneys today because these women dare to use their strength in service of their vision of a society that does not kill to prove that killing is wrong.

We pay tribute to the Elaine Jones, the Christina Swarns; the Tanya Greenes of the capital defense community. Thank you for daring to be a powerful force for justice, redemption, and mercy.

The Bail Industry Tries, Again, To Overturn Bail Reform in Georgia

This past Monday, a subcommittee of the House Judiciary Non-Civil Committee heard HB 340, a bill which would overturn bail reform in Atlanta, and preclude any other city or county in Georgia from ending cash bail. The legislation would force burdensome costs on Georgians; it would continue to criminalize poverty and race; it would compromise public safety; and, finally, it would be unconstitutional. The only beneficiaries of the legislation would be the bail industry. The bill’s sponsor, Representative Micah Gravley, presented the legislation while flanked by four individuals from the bail industry.

The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Gravley, is seated next to Ann Hood, of Easy Out Bonding Co., Inc. from Gainesville, Nathan Owens, of Double “O” Bonding in Athens, and Corey Dunlap, of Free At Last Bail Bonding of Atlanta. Rep. Gravley is seen gesturing in the image.

Rep. Gravley told the subcommittee that he introduced the legislation due to alleged problems with individuals being released on signature bonds for violent felonies — and then he turned it over to the bail industry. For the next 25 minutes, two bail industry representatives dominated the discussion and misled the committee. The representatives of the bail industry introduced themselves as “concerned citizens,” only admitting to being in the industry when pressed by members of the subcommittee. One of the bail industry representatives, from Athens, provided copies of several recognizance bonds given to people charged with crimes like armed robbery and rape, claiming that the Athens community wants the law to be changed. SCHR has since learned, however, that in one of the cases the judge issued an OR bond after a hung jury (in which the jury was 11-1 in favor of acquittal) and, in another, the prosecutor agreed to the OR bond, due to a lack of evidence. Bondsman Corey Dunlap stated that a Georgia State Trooper was killed by someone who was out on an OR (own recognizance) bond. When challenged with the AJC’s reporting that the defendant was out of jail on $19,000 bond, Dunlap claimed that he didn’t remember the facts of the case.

The chairman then opened up the hearing for public comment, allowing 60 seconds for each person. Nearly every person who testified was in opposition to the bill. The first voices to speak against the bill were Megan Middleton, a lobbyist from the City of Atlanta, Matthew McCord, a judge who sat on the bail subcommittee of Gov. Deal’s Council on Criminal Justice Reform, and Matt Westmoreland, an at-large member of the Atlanta City Council. SCHR’s Public Policy Director Marissa Dodson continued the opposition testimony, along with Bronson Elliot from Ebenezer Baptist Church, Billy Honor from New Georgia Project, Mary Hooks from SONG, SCHR’s Sarah Geraghty, and Devin Barrington-Ward from Black Futurists Group.

The aggregate testimony against HB 340 was compelling, and some Republican subcommittee members could be seen nodding in agreement with the positions taken. Many members, again including Republicans, recognized the predatory motives of the bail industry and the injustice of forcing extended incarceration, particularly for local ordinance violations and misdemeanor offenses. The subcommittee did not vote on the bill.

SCHR is continuing to monitor HB 340 — which, as of this writing, has not been scheduled for another hearing — while we also track SB 164, a similar bill introduced by Bill Cowsert that has been assigned to the Senate Judiciary Committee but not yet scheduled for a hearing.