Former Prosecutors and Others File Friend-of-the-Court Brief in Support of Johnny Lee Gates

Yesterday, a unique group of former prosecutors, a former judge, and a civil rights attorney filed a friend-of-the-court brief in support of Johnny Lee Gates, whose 1977 murder conviction has been called into question by new evidence of systematic race discrimination.  The group, which includes former United States Deputy Attorney General Larry Thompson, former Georgia Supreme Court Chief Justice Leah Sears, and former Congressman Bob Barr, argues that the evidence of discrimination is overwhelming and that it “must be fully examined on the merits and not swept away as the State desires.”

As former prosecutors, a former Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Georgia, and a former President of the Georgia State Conference of the NAACP, the signers are dedicated to advancing a fair justice system. The conduct presented in Mr. Gates’s case, they write, “is anathema to that goal.”  In addition, they argue that the Court should reject the State’s attempt to prevent Mr. Gates from presenting the new evidence based on procedural grounds.  “The State engaged in systemic racial discrimination, hid the evidence for four decades, and now that this Court has forced that evidence into the open, the State seeks to avoid its examination.  The Court should not allow the State to do so.”

Mr. Gates is represented by the Southern Center for Human Rights (SCHR) and the Georgia Innocence Project (GIP), who, last month, filed a supplement to a motion for a new trial, after newly discovered evidence clearly established that the prosecutors’ jury strikes in Gates’s case were the product of systematic race discrimination. In February, the Superior Court of Muscogee County ordered the State to disclose the prosecutors’ jury selection notes from Gates’s trial, as well as from other capital trials involving black defendants in Muscogee County in the late 1970s.  On March 2, the State produced its jury notes.

The notes in every case, including Mr. Gates’s, reveal a deliberate effort to keep black citizens off the jury.

The newly-obtained notes leave no doubt that the strikes were racially motivated with the goal of obtaining all-white juries:

  • The prosecutors labeled white prospective jurors as “W” and black prospective jurors as “N.”
  • The prosecutors further singled out black prospective jurors for strikes by marking a dot next to the black prospective jurors’ names.
  • The prosecutors described black prospective jurors in derogatory terms, including “slow,” “old + ignorant,” “con artist,” “hostile,” and “fat.”
  • One white prospective juror was described as a “top juror” because he “has to deal with 150 to 200 of these people that work for his construction co.”

Read the pleading here. Read the amicus brief here. 

2018 Legislative Update

Fighting uphill battles is nothing new to the Southern Center for Human Rights, and the 2018 Georgia Legislative Session certainly brought its share of challenges. The efforts of SCHR and our partners persisted into the final minutes of the session – with the Georgia General Assembly adjourning, sine die – after midnight on March 30th.  Despite the continued influence of the damaging rhetoric and policies from the federal administration, SCHR fiercely advocated for legislative changes consistent with our commitment to those affected by Georgia’s unduly harsh criminal (justice?) system. A list of criminal justice bills that passed the legislature can be found at the bottom of the blog.

Notably, we are pleased to share that SB 407, Governor Deal (and his Criminal Justice Reform Council’s) bill, achieved final passage in both chambers with unanimous votes. SB 407 includes many reforms, including changes to misdemeanor bail, increased ability for courts to convert fines and fees to community service, expanded access to retroactive first offender treatment, and improvements to behavioral incentive dates that shorten sentences.

We worked closely with lawmakers who introduced the following proactive, progressive legislative proposals that did not make it to the finish line in 2018, but will continue to be pursued in the coming years:

  • HB 768 – to ensure that people with intellectual disability are not executed in Georgia by improving the process for determining intellectual disability in death penalty cases. There was one hearing on the bill with impeccable testimony from Patrick Mulvaney, the managing attorney for SCHR’s capital litigation unit, and Lauren Lucas, GSU Law professor and director of the Center for Access to Justice.
  • HB 802 – to allow parole eligibility for people who were under the age of 18 when sentenced to life in prison and ensure compliance with recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions.
  • HB 857 – to require that: 1) women who are incarcerated have access to feminine hygiene products and medical information; 2) pregnant women who are incarcerated are excluded from “squat and cough” searches; 3) male correctional staff are prohibited from showers and other dressing areas; 4) only female correctional staff conduct pat-down searches of incarcerated women; and 5) the location of family members be considered when making facility placement decisions for women who are incarcerated.
  • HR 1416 – to create a House Study Committee on Bail Reform consistent with the recommendation of the Council on Criminal Justice Reform to study statutory alternatives to money bond. The resolution was passed by the House Public Safety Committee but unfortunately did not make it to the House floor for a vote in time.

This year, we also had to battle several destructive measures that were wholly inconsistent with the “smart on crime” reforms passed in prior legislative sessions. This included attempts to create new crimes, increase sentence lengths, expand mandatory minimums, and try more children as adults. Disturbingly, there was also a last-minute, but unsuccessful, attempt to threaten the success of Governor Deal’s criminal justice reform efforts and preempt local bail reform in cities like Atlanta. In partnership with our allies in the Justice Reform Partnership, SCHR researched and explained the impact of proposed legislation, testified at hearings, drafted amendments, mobilized impacted communities, lessening the impact of some of these bad bills and causing others to fail.

SCHR is proud to be the convening organization for the Georgia Criminal Justice Reform Partnership. The Partnership is a statewide coalition made up of over 50 organizations and individuals from across the political and issue spectrum that unite in our pursuit to pass common sense, proactive criminal justice reform legislation at the state and local level. This year, more than thirty partners co-sponsored “Justice Day at the Capitol,” bringing more than 600 Georgians from across the state to Atlanta to advocate for meaningful and effective criminal justice reform.

SCHR is grateful for the support of all our friends and partners who share our vision for a system that promotes equality, dignity, and justice. If you or your organization are interested in joining the Justice Reform Partnership, send an email to [email protected]. Together, let us build a better Georgia.



  • HB 657 – Makes it a felony to knowingly give a firearm to any person convicted of a felony or on first offender probation. (SCHR’s position – opposed)
  • HB 673 – Distracted Driving Bill that requires hands-free use of cell phones and other technology. (SCHR’s position: monitored)
  • HB 732 – Expands definition of sex trafficking and increases the penalty. (SCHR’s position: opposed)
  • HB 751 – Creates the Georgia Emergency Communications Authority. (SCHR’s position: monitored)
  • HB 765 – CJ’s Law – increases penalties for hit and run accidents that result in death or serious injury. (SCHR’s position: monitored)
  • HB 803 – Prohibits trafficking a disabled adult, elder person, or resident. (SCHR’s position: monitored)
  • HB 890 – Creates penalties for using a fire exit after shoplifting. (SCHR’s position: opposed)
  • HB 834 –  Provides for the termination of a lease when the lessee is the victim of family violence. (SCHR’s position: monitored)
  • HR 913 – House Study Committee on Incorporating Law Enforcement in the Pathway to Treatment and Social Services for Persons Having Challenges with Drug Use and Mental Health. (SCHR’s position: supported)
  • SB 315 – Creates the new crime of unauthorized computer access. (SCHR’s position: monitored)
  • SB 369 – Requires $5 of pretrial diversion fees be given to the Peace Officers’ Annuity and Benefit Fund. (SCHR’s position: opposed)
  • SB 407 – Reforms to misdemeanor bail, conversion of fines and fees to community service, retroactive first offender, behavioral incentive dates and sentencing enhancements for certain firearm offenses. (SCHR’s position: supported)
  • SR 146 – Marsy’s Law – proposes an amendment to the state’s constitution to acknowledge certain rights of crime victims. (SCHR’s position: monitored)


  • HB 740 – Prohibits the expulsion or suspension of any child (preschool – 3rd grade) for more than 5 consecutive days unless drugs or weapons were involved. (SCHR’s position: supported)
  • SB 336 – Prohibits the provider of electronic communications services from notifying a customer about a subpoena for records used in furtherance of crimes against minors. (SCHR’s position: monitored)


  • SB 406 – Expands background checks for people working with vulnerable populations. (SCHR’s position: opposed)
  • SB 427 – Changes provisions relating to income, voluntary unemployment, and involuntary loss of income to account for a parent’s incarceration. (SCHR’s position: supported).

SCHR Continues to Challenge LaGrange, GA, Policies That Restrict Access to Basic Utility Services

Charles Brewer, of LaGrange, suffers from serious sleep apnea and congestive heart failure. The 55-year old’s health problems render him unable to work, and his sole source of income is the disability payment he receives monthly.

In 2014, Brewer pleaded no contest to driving without a license, and was placed on probation. In October 2015, the City transferred $210.25 in unpaid municipal court fines to the city’s collection agency. In March 2016, Brewer applied for utilities in the home he had just moved in to, and was obligated to sign a statement which read: “Applicants with delinquent amounts owed to the City of any type shall be subject to having utility services terminated for failure to pay said debts.”

Five months later, Brewer received a letter from the City, warning him that his utilities would be cut off if his court debt – which was accruing interest each month – was not paid. Both Brewer’s oxygen tank and CPAP machine require electricity to run. Terrified at the prospect of losing these life-sustaining machines, he explained his situation to the City, who claimed to have added a “medical no-cut” notation to his file. Despite this, Brewer continued to receive threats of service interruption.

In May 2017, the Southern Center for Human Rights, the National Immigration Law Center, and Relman, Dane & Colfax, PLLC filed a lawsuit against the City of LaGrange, Georgia challenging two utility-related policies. The first conditions utility service access on the payment of municipal court debt; if residents are unable to pay outstanding court fines, they risk having utilities turned off completely. The second policy requires individuals seeking utility services to provide a valid social security number and a government-issued photo ID. In December, our suit was dismissed in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Georgia because, in its view, the Fair Housing Act only applies to pre-acquisition claims (or discriminatory policies that affect a person’s ability to obtain housing), not post-acquisition claims challenging discriminatory policies that affect a person’s ability to keep housing.

Last month, we filed an appeal in the Eleventh Circuit. Multiple organizations from across the country, and four former Assistant HUD Secretaries, submitted amicus briefs to the Eleventh Circuit in support of our position, including the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, the Southern Poverty Law Center, the Georgia Latino Alliance for Human Rights, the Atlanta Legal Aid Society, the Georgia Legal Services Program, and the Atlanta Volunteer Lawyers Foundation.

Brewer’s story is not an anomaly in LaGrange. In an attempt to lure new residents and businesses to the City, LaGrange doesn’t levy property taxes. Instead, a large portion of the city’s municipal operations are funded by the sale of utilities to residents. The city is the sole utility provider, a monopoly which allows them to both extort unpaid municipal court fines from city residents by withholding utilities as well as restricting immigrants’ access to utilities.

Atteeyah Hollie.

“There are enough collateral consequences associated with a criminal conviction.  Losing one’s water and electricity shouldn’t be one of them,” says Atteeyah Hollie, an SCHR staff attorney and counsel for the Plaintiffs.

Along with the Court Debt Policy, our lawsuit also challenges the city’s Immigrant Utilities Policy, which confines access to utilities to residents with US government-issued identification and social security numbers. Many undocumented residents are forced to open utility accounts via an agreeable third-party – a desperate act which violates another LaGrange city ordinance.

Plaintiff, John Doe #3, has resided in LaGrange for over a decade. He owns the home that he lives in with his wife and two young children. Doe has both an Individual Taxpayer Identification Number (ITIN) provided to him by the IRS, as well as a Mexican government-issued photo ID. Neither form of identification is deemed sufficient to open a utilities account with LaGrange, forcing Doe to ask a friend to open the family’s utility account, thereby risking criminal prosecution. The family’s only legal option? Live without access to electricity and water.

These policies are not only inhumane – they’re illegal. The Fair Housing Act (FHA) forbids discrimination in the provision of services relating to the use of a dwelling due to race, color, or nationality. It also protects against housing policies which have an unjust impact on members of a protected group. The Court Debt policy disproportionately harms LaGrange’s Black residents, who make up less than 50% of the city’s population but more than 90% of those with debt added to their utility bills. The Immigrant Utilities Policy unfairly impacts immigrants, primarily Latinos.  The Court Debt policy also violates state law in that it conditions utility services on the payment of unrelated debt.

Legislation Would Further Exacerbate Wealth-Based Detention in Georgia

Yesterday, following a three hour hearing on SB 452, the legislation passed out of the House Public Safety Committee.

Sponsored by a group of Republican state senators, the legislation would mandate that local police notify prosecutors when they learn that a suspect is in the country illegally. SB 452 would also require the courts sentencing these suspects to determine whether they are here without proper documentation and to pass that information along to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. Local jails would also be required to notify U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement before unauthorized immigrants are released from custody.

Unfortunately, SB 452 now includes language that would prohibit meaningful bail reform across the state of Georgia. The legislation would prohibit the release of people on their own recognizance (including for local ordinance violations) until after he or she has been before a judge. This proposal is the product of the bail bond industry, and it will be at the expense of local communities and taxpayers.

The bail language in SB 452 would exacerbate wealth-based detention in Georgia by only allowing the immediate release of people who have money. The impact of this proposal will be felt by communities and taxpayers that will have to deal with the unnecessary costs of incarcerating people charged with minor non-violent offenses. The state should not force local jurisdictions to impose financial conditions on people charged with minor offenses.

According to SCHR’s Public Policy Director Marissa Dodson,

“Section 2 (Lines 32-41) is extremely problematic for our coalition’s bail reform efforts because, if passed, it will:

  1. Preempt the City of Atlanta’s new bail policy that requires the immediate release of people charged with minor offenses on their own recognizance; and

  2. further exacerbate wealth-based detention in Georgia by only allowing people to be immediately released from jail when financial conditions are imposed.”

    Critically, this proposal was not recommended by executive and judicial bodies that studied bail for more than 6 months. After seeking the input of relevant stakeholders including law enforcement, prosecutors, judges, impacted people and community groups, and studying Georgia’s bail system for more than six months, a committee appointed by the Judicial Council of Georgia and the Governor’s Council on Criminal Justice reform made findings and recommendations for reform. In its annual report, the Governor’s Council issued recommendations on bail reform to the General Assembly. Several of these recommendations are included in SB 407, which is currently being considered by the House Judiciary Non-Civil Committee.

The next step will be for the SB 452 to be considered by the House Rules Committee and then on the floor of the House of Representatives. Can you help us stop this legislation?


  1. Contact the Rules Committee and ask for a NO vote on SB 452
    1. In the “To” column cut and paste:

[email protected]; [email protected]; [email protected]; [email protected]; [email protected]; [email protected]; [email protected]; [email protected]; [email protected]; [email protected]; [email protected]; [email protected]; [email protected]; [email protected]; [email protected]; [email protected]; [email protected]; [email protected]; [email protected]; [email protected]; [email protected]; [email protected]; [email protected]; [email protected]; [email protected]; [email protected]; [email protected]; [email protected]; [email protected]; [email protected]; [email protected]; [email protected]; [email protected]; [email protected]; [email protected]; [email protected]; [email protected]

    1. Put in the subject line: Vote NO on SB 452
    1. Copy and paste the following (and please feel free to modify as you like):

Members of the House Rules Committee,

Please hold SB 452 without further action. SB 452 will compromise public safety, waste taxpayer dollars and harm the state’s economy. Specifically, the bail provisions in Section 2 will exacerbate wealth-based detention in Georgia and prohibit local jurisdictions from being able to decide whether financial conditions are necessary to ensure court appearance and maintain public safety.

Thank you,

Your name

Street Address

City, State, Zip

2. Contact Speaker Ralston and Gov. Deal

Speaker David Ralston

404-656-5020 (Consider putting this number on speed dial)

[email protected]

Governor Nathan Deal

404-656-1776 (Consider putting this number on speed dial)

Click here to use the form on his website

3. Copy and Paste the Call to Action and Send to Your Networks!

Newly Discovered Prosecutors’ Notes Reveal Blatant Race Discrimination in Capital Jury Selection

Today, the Southern Center for Human Rights and the Georgia Innocence Project filed a supplement to a motion for a new trial in the case of Johnny Gates. In 1977, Gates – a black man – was convicted and sentenced to death by an all-white jury in Columbus, GA.  The prosecutors struck all four black prospective jurors from serving on Gates’s jury. Newly discovered evidence clearly establishes that the prosecutors’ jury strikes in Gates’s case were the product of systematic race discrimination.

Johnny Gates.

In February, the Superior Court of Muscogee County ordered the State to disclose the prosecutors’ jury selection notes from Gates’s trial, as well as from other capital trials involving black defendants in Muscogee County in the late 1970s.  On March 2, the State produced its jury notes.

The notes in every case, including Mr. Gates’s, reveal a deliberate effort to keep black citizens off of the jury.

The newly-obtained notes leave no doubt that the strikes were racially motivated with the goal of obtaining all-white juries:

  • The prosecutors labeled white prospective jurors as “W” and black prospective jurors as “N.”
  • The prosecutors further singled out black prospective jurors for strikes by marking a dot next to the black prospective jurors’ names.
  • The prosecutors described black prospective jurors in derogatory terms, including “slow,” “old + ignorant,” “con artist,” “hostile,” and “fat.”
  • One white prospective juror was described as a “top juror” because he “has to deal with 150 to 200 of these people that work for his construction co.”

“Race discrimination undermines the credibility and reliability of the justice system,” said Patrick Mulvaney, an SCHR attorney representing Mr. Gates.  “Mr. Gates is entitled to a new trial that is fair and free of discrimination.”

The prosecutors’ jury strikes of black citizens confirm the discriminatory intent reflected in their notes.  There were two prosecutors in Gates’s case: Douglas Pullen and William Smith.  In the five capital cases involving black defendants that Pullen tried between 1975 and 1979, the prosecution struck 27 of the 27 black prospective jurors.  Smith had a similar strike record. Additionally, in 2016, the United States Supreme Court held in Foster v. Chatman that Pullen and his co-counsel struck black prospective jurors on the basis of race in a capital case out of Rome, Georgia.

Gates has been incarcerated for the past 41 years based on his 1977 trial.  Though he initially received the death penalty, he was later resentenced to life in prison without parole.

View images of the jury notes here. Read the pleading here.

Gates is represented by Patrick Mulvaney and Katherine Moss from the Southern Center for Human Rights and Clare Gilbert from the Georgia Innocence Project.   

Inadequate Medical Care in Prison Makes Headlines Again

A sick person in detention is entirely at the mercy of the prison or jail for their medical care.

As the result of extreme overcrowding, budget cuts, and the profit priorities of for-profit health care providers, people in prisons, jails and detention facilities with medical needs suffer from scant medical care. This phenomenon is particularly pronounced in the Deep South, where SCHR has challenged poor medical care and intolerable living conditions in litigation for decades.

Over the weekend, NPR reported on yet another lawsuit challenging the subpar medical care that prisoners — currently the only group in the United States with a constitutional right to healthcare — receive.

Lewis v. Cain

Francis Brauner was instrumental in launching a class-action suit on behalf of all people currently incarcerated at Louisiana’s Angola prison, suing for care that allegedly caused them “needless pain and suffering.” According to NPR, Mr. Brauner was sent to Dixon Correctional Institute in Louisiana in 2005. He was sentenced to 20 years, with hard labor involved. When he was roughly a quarter of the way through his sentence, he was working in the fields when an inexplicable pain shot through him — perhaps some remnant of back trouble caused by a car accident years ago — but intense enough that he could no longer stand up.

Mr. Brauner was taken to a hospital in New Orleans, but Hurricane Katrina soon hit the city, and he was moved to Angola prison. He was told the larger facilities would mean better resources and faster treatment. Instead, he languished in bed in the hospital ward for a month, essentially unattended. He developed bedsores so severe that they ate through muscle. He was denied necessary surgeries. He eventually became paralyzed from the waist down.

Soon after arriving at Angola, Mr. Brauner experienced serious lapses in medical attention and kept continuous notes of the subpar care other incarcerated people were receiving in a journal. He shared it with his attorney, Nick Trenticosta. Trenticosta was shocked when he visited the hospital ward at Angola. According to NPR:

“There were open garbage containers,” Trenticosta recounted. “Fly tape hanging from the ceiling with a lot of dead flies on it. Over men’s beds who had open bedsores.”

Mr. Brauner went on to sue several of his Angola doctors and jailers, claiming they were deliberately indifferent to the severity of his medical condition, violating the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment. Then, in 2015, the ACLU of Louisiana, along with The Promise of Justice Initiative, the law firm Cohen Milstein Sellers & Toll PLLC, and the Advocacy Center filed a complaint against the Louisiana Department of Public Safety and Corrections, Lewis v. Cain. According to the ACLU of Louisiana, the “complaint alleges that the [Angola] prison’s more than 6,000 prisoners are all at risk of serious harm, while scores of men have already experienced unnecessary injury, suffering and death.” Late last month, Judge Shelly Dick said the case could proceed as a class action lawsuit on behalf of Angola’s prisoners.

Substandard medical care in detention facilities has created a public health crisis, with more than 600,000 people being released from prison every year and going home to their communities, carrying with them both infectious diseases and medical conditions requiring immediate attention and resources. Medical failures are particularly pervasive in jails, where detainees with serious medical needs are often ignored by a system that knows the average length of stay for jail detainees is 3 months. Rather than treat the individual as a patient, medical systems in jails more often treat them as problems that will leave their jurisdiction in a matter of months.

To ensure adequate medical care for people who are incarcerated, SCHR has brought a number of class action lawsuits.

For example, SCHR filed Leatherwood v. Campbell, a federal class action lawsuit on behalf of all men who were HIV-positive and incarcerated at Limestone Correctional Facility in Harvest, Alabama. The lawsuit challenged the inadequate medical treatment and deplorable housing provided to HIV-positive men at the facility. The defendants named in the lawsuit were the Alabama Department of Corrections (ADOC) and NaphCare Inc., the state’s former private medical provider. The ADOC and the plaintiffs entered into a two-year settlement agreement in which the Defendants agreed to improve HIV medical care at Limestone by ensuring that all incarcerated people who are HIV-positive received their medications, by hiring a full-time HIV Specialist, and by improving the living conditions for all people with HIV at the institution.

Read more about Lewis v Cain here. Read more about SCHR’s history of healthcare advocacy here. 

Alabama Botches Doyle Lee Hamm’s Execution

Last Thursday, the state of Alabama attempted to execute Doyle Lee Hamm. Hamm, whom we have written about in the past, suffers from a myriad of medical issues, including acute lymphatic cancer. His long-time attorney, Bernard Harcourt, has been arguing for months that because treatment for his cancer has compromised Hamm’s veins, attempting an execution via lethal injection would be cruel and unusual – and likely unsuccessful. It appears that Harcourt was correct. Hamm spent more than two and a half hours in the death chamber on Thursday night, yet he is still alive.

What exactly happened on the night of February 22nd? In the words of Alabama Corrections Commissioner Jeff Dunn, “I wouldn’t necessarily characterize what we had tonight as a problem.” In the words of Hamm’s attorney, Bernard Harcourt, “This was a bit of butchery that can only be described as torture.”

Hamm was given an execution date on December 13th, 2017 – the day he was supposed to be in surgery to remove multiple cancerous tumors. Instead, his surgery was canceled and the warden read him his death warrant. District Court Judge Karen Bowdre granted a stay of execution on January 31st; that stay was vacated after an emergency appeal to the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals on February 13th, and a medical examination of Hamm was ordered. The results showed that Hamm did not have any usable veins in his hands and arms – the standard locations for lethal injections – but that his lower extremities had workable venous access. In an unprecedented move, Bowdre ordered that the execution could proceed if only Hamm’s legs and feet were used.

On the night of the scheduled execution, two hours after the procedure had been scheduled to begin, a last-minute appeal to the Supreme Court of the United States was denied. From approximately 9 to 11 30 PM, it was unclear to those outside of the death chamber what was happening. The details are horrific. Harcourt writes:

“While he was strapped down arms and legs to the gurney, the IV personnel simultaneously worked on both legs at the same time, probing his flesh and inserting needles. The IV personnel almost certainly punctured Doyle’s bladder, because he was urinating blood for the next day. They may have hit his femoral artery as well, because suddenly there was a lot of blood gushing out. There were multiple puncture wounds on the ankles, calf, and right groin area, around a dozen. They were grinding a needle in his shin area for many minutes, painfully. He seems to have 6 puncture marks in his right groin, and large bruising and swelling in the groin.”

“This attempted execution clearly demonstrates the cruelty and the torture of the death penalty,” said SCHR Executive Director Sara Totonchi. “It is unconscionable. Our hearts go out to everyone involved in this macabre display: from Mr. Hamm and his family and defense team, to the victim’s family, to the correctional officers.”

SCHR Client Olivia Pearson Acquitted

Yesterday, a Wayne County jury returned a not-guilty verdict – after just 20 minutes of deliberation – for Southern Center for Human Rights client Olivia Pearson. Ms. Pearson was initially charged with two felonies: illegally assisting a voter, and falsely signing a form explaining her reason for doing so. SCHR was successful in getting the first charge dismissed. This was Ms. Pearson’s second trial; her first ended in a mistrial after the jury could not reach a unanimous verdict on either count.

Ms. Pearson outside the courthouse.

Ms. Pearson is an African-American grandmother who has dedicated her life to public service in Douglas, Georgia. Eighteen years ago, she became the first African-American woman elected to Douglas’s city commission and has run unopposed for her seat in every election since. Her mother helped sue the city of Douglas to gain more African-American political representation in the 1970’s. She was prosecuted for showing a first-time black voter how to use a voting machine during Barack Obama’s re-election in 2012 in Coffee County, Georgia.

“I’m glad that the Wayne County jury saw this case for what it was, and rightfully acquitted Ms. Pearson in 20 minutes. We’re thrilled for her,” said SCHR attorney Mark Loudon-Brown.

On October 15th, 2012, a young woman named Diewanna Robinson was voting for the first time in Douglas, Georgia. When Ms. Robinson took the stand at trial, she testified that she’d requested assistance in using the voting machine, that Ms. Pearson had agreed to help show her how to use the machine, and that Ms. Pearson neither told her who to vote for, nor influenced her vote in any way. She testified that Ms. Pearson’s instruction ended at how to operate the machine. Nevertheless, Ms. Pearson was charged with two felony offenses.

“This was without a doubt a racially motivated targeted prosecution of a woman who was exercising her right to get out the vote in her community,” said Sarah Geraghty, Managing Attorney at SCHR.

Ms. Pearson and her SCHR legal team await the jury’s verdict.
Ms. Pearson reacts to the jury’s verdict – not guilty.

“Yesterday was finally the end to a very tumultuous time in my life. I am so grateful to the jurors of Wayne County for being able to see the truth and allow justice to prevail,” Ms. Pearson said.

Ms. Pearson’s legal team was comprised of Mark Loudon-Brown, Sarah Geraghty, and Maya Chaudhuri of SCHR.

Ms. Pearson and her SCHR legal team.

Governor Deal’s Final Criminal Justice Reform Push

Last week, Georgia Governor Nathan Deal unveiled what is arguably his toughest criminal justice reform push yet, according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

When Governor Deal came into office in 2010, he quickly made clear that justice reinvestment was to be the cornerstone of his administration. He spoke about the crushing financial expense the state would bear if it continued its current sentencing trajectory and made a plea for humanity, stating “While we foresee this effort uncovering strategies that will save taxpayer dollars, we are first and foremost attacking the human costs of a society with too much crime, too many behind bars, too many children growing up without a much-needed parent and too many wasted lives.”

In 2011, Governor Deal created a Council on Criminal Justice Reform Council that was tasked to make recommendations of reforms that address the state’s unnecessary and counterproductive addiction to incarceration. Because of these reforms, the number of annual commitments to the Georgia Department of Corrections has fallen substantially. At the end of 2017, the state prison population stood at 52,962, which is nearly 12% less than the 60,000 projected to be incarcerated by 2018. In what seems to an unintended but positive consequence of criminal justice reform, the state has experienced a decline in the racial disparity in prison admissions. In 2009, 61% of people sent to prison were Black, compared to 52% of such prison admissions in 2017.

For the past seven years, the Council has enjoyed bipartisan support and the majority of its recommendations have been adopted by the General Assembly. A limited list of these enacted reforms includes:

• Sentencing reforms such as increasing the felony threshold for certain crimes and moving to weight-based drug sentencing;
• Expanding and allowing parole eligibility for certain crimes;
• Tackling the for-profit, predatory motives of private probation companies;
• Securing substantial juvenile justice reforms that mandate treatment in the community;
• Reducing barriers to reentry via ban the box initiatives and substantial appropriations towards education in facilities and reentry services upon release.

Last week, following the recommendations of the Council, Governor Deal put forth a proposal to give judges new flexibility in whether or not to require cash bail. The AJC reports:

“The legislation, Senate Bill 407, would let judges consider a defendant’s ability to pay in setting bail and give law enforcement officials more leeway to issue citations instead of criminal charges.

The legislation takes aim at a bail system that has come under increasing scrutiny in Georgia and across the nation. Civil rights groups claim jailing poor people simply because they lack money for bond is unconstitutional, and several lawsuits in Atlanta and elsewhere have challenged the practice.”

Under current law, the state gives judges little flexibility in determining whether or not to set cash bail for a defendant; it requires that cash bail be set in misdemeanor cases. Right now, more than 60% of people incarcerated in Georgia jails are awaiting trial, with many of them remaining behind bars simply because they could not afford to pay their bail amount.

Predictably, SB 407 is encountering resistance from some in law enforcement and the bail bond industry. “This governor has done more for those who perpetrate crime than Lucifer and his demons combined,” Putnam County Sheriff Howard Sills wrote in a letter to the AJC, “and every piece of his criminal justice reform that has been passed into law has complicated or burdened our duties and/or endangered the citizenry of our state.”

Rep. Scott Turner was outraged by Sills’ remarks. “Are you serious? Because we treat people as human beings in the criminal justice system that we somehow are worse than Lucifer, than the devil?” he said. “That’s changing lives. That’s not worse than Satan.”

Deal is continuing the fight for a more just system, state-wide. “These common-sense reforms lay the foundation for a more equitable criminal justice system,” he said.

The report and proposed legislation comes just weeks after the Atlanta City Council unanimously voted to adopt an ordinance designed to eliminate cash bail for people accused of many minor offense and ordinance violations.

Executing the Sick and Frail in Alabama

On January 25th, Alabama had planned to execute a man who cannot remember the crime for which he had been sentenced to death. Vernon Madison is 67, and has spent half of his life on death-row for the 1985 murder of a police officer in Mobile, Alabama. Madison has suffered a series of strokes, which have led to the development of vascular dementia. He is legally blind, incontinent, cannot walk independently, and suffers from slurred speech.

Vernon Madison. Photo courtesy of EJI.

In November, the United States Supreme Court reversed a lower court decision that found Madison ineligible for execution, since his precipitous mental decline has led to no memory of his crime. The decision to reverse was unanimous, but Justice Breyer was clearly troubled by what he saw as an emerging trend:

“We may face ever more instances of state efforts to execute prisoners suffering the diseases and infirmities of old age,” Justice Breyer said. “And we may well have to consider the ways in which lengthy periods of imprisonment between death sentence and execution can deepen the cruelty of the death penalty while at the same time undermining its penological rationale.”

Madison’s execution was planned for 6 PM on January 25. The Supreme Court intervened at 5:30 PM, issuing a temporary stay. Two and a half hours later, the stay had been granted while the court decides how to proceed with the appeal from Madison’s attorneys at the Equal Justice Initiative.

Madison isn’t the oldest person on Alabama’s death row: Walter Moody, Jr., is 83 years old, and has been on death row for 20 years. Charlie Washington is 70, and has been on death row for 14 years. Last year, Alabama executed 75-year-old Tommy Arthur.

Madison isn’t even necessarily the sickest man on Alabama’s death row.

Doyle Lee Hamm, who is scheduled to be executed on February 22, is 61 years old. Hamm has been on death row since 1987. When he was sentenced to die, Alabama was still using a yellow-painted electric chair, ghoulishly nicknamed Yellow Mama, to kill people.

Doyle Lee Hamm, courtesy of MS DOC.

Hamm has also been living with cranial and lymphatic cancer for four years. His attorneys have argued that, since treatment for his cancers has compromised his veins, attempting to execute him via lethal injection would be cruel and unusual. Hamm received radiation to his skull for his cranial cancer, but doctors discovered a number of abnormal lymph nodes in his abdomen, chest, and lungs. Last year, a biopsy of his eye tissue revealed that the cancer had spread.

Hamm’s longtime attorney (and former Southern Center intern) Bernard Harcourt invited Dr. Mark Heath, an anesthesiologist and professor of medicine at Columbia University, to examine Hamm. Heath was not allowed to bring any medical equipment into the prison; they had to improvise and use Harcourt’s tie as a makeshift tourniquet in order for the doctor to examine Hamm’s veins. Heath found that there was only one potentially usable vein on Hamm’s body — on his right hand — and even that vein was highly susceptible to rupture. The inability of prison personnel to swiftly and properly inject the lethal drugs could “cause Mr. Hamm to become paralyzed and consciously suffocate,” Heath said.

There’s ample evidence that this can happen in the course of an execution. In 2014, government officials and witnesses in the Oklahoma death chamber watched, for 43 minutes, as Clayton Lockett convulsed and writhed in pain, attempting to lift himself off the gurney and out of his leather restraints on more than one occasion, eventually managing to utter “I’m not,” and “something’s wrong.” His vein had ruptured as prison officials attempted to administer the lethal drugs.

Last November, 69-year-old Ohio death-row inmate Alva Campbell Jr. ― who has been seriously ill for a number of years ― was poked and prodded at by prison officials and medical professionals as they labored to find a suitable vein to inject the lethal drugs into his system. Journalists who were witnesses to the execution said that prison staff first attempted to find a suitable vein in each of Campbell’s arms, twice, and then tried a vein in his right shin. At one point in the process, Campbell began to cry. After more than two hours, his execution was called off. He was the third US citizen to earn the dubious distinction of surviving their own execution.

Hamm’s execution was stayed earlier this month by U.S District Judge Karen O Bowdre, but on February 14th, the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals granted Alabama’s emergency motion to vacate the stay. The 11th Circuit also ordered the appointment of an independent medical examiner to examine Hamm and to announce the findings of that evaluation no later than February 20th.

Reasonable people can debate the morality and efficacy of capital punishment. But the act of executing senior citizens and the very ill descends into, as Bernard Harcourt writes in the New York Times, a ghoulish inferno. “This,” Harcourt writes, “is justice today. Court opinions filled with ghastly details about how we prick and poke, and slice and cut, and poison other human beings. Opinions that, someday soon, we will look back on with embarrassment and horror. Our justice is so engrossed with how we kill that it does not even stop to question the humanity of executing a frail, terminally ill prisoner.”