Georgia GOP lawmaker makes budget argument to abolish death penalty

Rep. Brett Harrell of Snellville said Thursday that he thinks highlighting the cost of capital punishment may help win over the legislative support needed to eliminate Georgia's death row. Contributed by the Georgia Department of Corrections.

A Georgia Republican says he thinks the state House of Representatives is just a dozen votes shy of advancing a bill that would abolish the death penalty.

Rep. Brett Harrell of Snellville said Thursday that he thinks highlighting the cost of capital punishment may help win over the support needed, at least in the one chamber. Harrell, who chairs the influential House Ways and Means Committee, said he intends to push for the funding needed to pay for an analysis of how much Georgia spends to execute people.

“I think this conservative concerns about the death penalty focus is important and to focus on those fiscal costs will be important to us to gain those last few votes necessary to move the issue forward in Georgia,” he said.

The Gwinnett County lawmaker took part in a virtual discussion Thursday that was organized by Conservatives Concerned about the Death Penalty, a national group that argues capital punishment is inconsistent with conservative principles. He appeared along with two Republicans from Ohio and Wyoming.

Hannah Cox, the group’s senior national manager, called the death penalty a “failed big government program that fails to measure up to our values of limiting government, adhering to fiscal responsibility and protecting the sanctity of human life.” She said most of the costs stem from the intensive trials required for a capital murder case – and not, as most assume, the lengthy appellate process.

She said the squeeze on state budgets due to the COVID-19 pandemic has brought renewed scrutiny to the cost. Georgia just recently cut 10% from its budget, partly because of declining revenues due to the viral outbreak.

Harrell sponsored a bipartisan bill last year that would have ended the death penalty in Georgia, requiring instead life in prison without parole for those sitting on death row. The bill never cleared a committee. Georgia is among the 25 states that have the death penalty.

Now, he’s sharpening his fiscal line of attack, calling the death penalty an “incredibly expensive proposition.” He pointed to an example in the 1990s that left local officials jailed for a day in Lincoln County when they refused to foot the bill for a second capital murder trial after the courts overturned a death sentence. At the time, the case had already cost the rural county about $100,000; the county’s entire budget was $2.2 million.

“Evidence suggests – study after study – that it is not an actual deterrent to crime and we have alternatives, such as life without parole,” Harrell said. “As someone who is fiscally conservative and prefers a small government consistent with efficient implementation of government, the death penalty fails on all those measures.”

He also noted that Georgia has exonerated six people since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976.

“Someone who is also a social conservative and someone who is pro-life should also see the death penalty as very problematic in that the likelihood is very great that innocent have been executed as well,” Harrell said.

Georgia has carried out the sixth most executions nationally – a total of 76 inmates – since 1976, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.

Nationally, 1,522 inmates have been executed since then. The South is the region of the country that has executed the most people in that time, with Texas responsible for more than two-thirds of all executions in the country.

So far this year, Georgia’s death chamber has only seen one person killed by lethal injection: Donnie Lance, who was convicted in the 1997 murders of his ex-wife and her boyfriend, died in January. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s Joshua Sharpe wrote this first-person account at the time.

Last year, three people were executed in Georgia. In the last decade, the total number of executions peaked at nine in 2016. There are currently 41 inmates sitting on death row in Georgia.