ATLANTA — Georgia's death penalty statute was in the crosshairs again Monday as the state's top court considered whether capital defendants have to meet an unfair standard to prove they are mentally disabled to avoid an execution.
The Georgia Supreme Court heard arguments Monday from Alphonso Stripling, who claims the state cannot seek the death penalty against him for the 1988 killings of two co-workers because he is mentally disabled. Prosecutors, meanwhile, say they want the chance to prove he is mentally competent.
Stripling's case is the latest legal scrutiny of the policy Georgia etched out in 1988, when it became the first state to ban executing mentally disabled inmates. But Georgia also is the only state that requires defendants to prove they are mentally disabled beyond a reasonable doubt — the most stringent legal standard.
A federal three-judge panel last year struck down the law by a 2-1 vote, saying the law violates the ban against cruel and unusual punishment and could result in the execution of those with mental disabilities, which was barred by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2002. The full 11th Circuit Court of Appeals is now reviewing the ruling.
Stripling's case could give the Georgia Supreme Court an avenue to weigh in on the debate. A jury sentenced him to death in 1989 for shooting to death two co-workers at a Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurant in Douglasville, where he was training to become a cook.
The Supreme Court's 2002 ruling breathed new life into Stripling's appeal, and after a four-day hearing, a county judge found there was enough evidence to back Stripling's argument that he was mentally disabled. The state Supreme Court then ordered a new trial to test those claims.
At Monday's hearing, Stripling's attorneys urged the court to rethink that decision and call off the hearing, which they contend is unconstitutional. Defense attorney David Gossett said Georgia's standard inevitably means that some mentally disabled inmates will be executed, which would violate the Supreme Court's ruling.
"It's far better for a few non-mentally retarded defendants to be sentenced to life in prison than a mentally retarded inmate to be executed," he said.
Prosecutor James Dooley fired back by noting the court has repeatedly upheld the legal standard applied to state death penalty claims.
"Just because there are a majority of states that think differently from Georgia, doesn't mean we are not protecting our defendants' rights," he said.
The court, which did not immediately release its decision, seemed split.
Justice David Nahmias and his colleagues noted the court's previous rulings that upheld the standard. Justice Robert Benham then asked Dooley if the state would be willing to accept a few deaths of mentally disabled death row inmates as "collateral damage" for its policy.
"I think that would be wrong. I do believe there are standards in place that protect defendants in Georgia," the prosecutor responded. "It only takes one person to say I'm not going to agree to a death penalty," he said, noting that the death sentence cannot be imposed unless a jury unanimously recommends it.