As of May 17, the State of Georgia has executed five men in 2016. That is 5 out of 14 inmates executed in the entire country this year–a whopping 35.6 percent. The only other state that executed more than one prisoner this year is Texas (with six executions). Florida, Missouri, and Alabama have each carried out one execution.
So who are the five inmates Georgia has executed this year? Three of the five were age 21 or under at the time of the crimes, and all five experienced some form of mental illness, extreme childhood trauma, or intellectual disability. Two of these cases involved co-defendants who received lesser sentences, even though there was significant evidence that they manipulated their younger, more susceptible partners. Despite the tragic circumstance of each of these crimes, the details below paint a picture of a death penalty that is routinely given not to the most culpable or depraved offenders, but rather to individuals who are frequently young and have crippling functional impairments.
Brandon Astor Jones
The state of Georgia executed Brandon Astor Jones 10 days before his 73rd birthday. A father and grandfather, Jones was the oldest person ever executed by the state of Georgia.
As a child, Jones endured “extremely violent beatings” from his uncle and sexual abuse at the hands of his cousin. Multiple mental health professionals diagnosed Jones with bipolar disorder, PTSD, and decreased brain functioning as a result of exposure to the drug perchloroethylene. As a younger man, Jones was discharged from the Army for “psychological reasons.” At the time of his execution, Jones was experiencing increasing dementia.
Jones, a Black man, was convicted of a 1979 shooting of a white man during a convenience store robbery. According to Stephen Bright of the Southern Center for Human Rights in Atlanta, if Jones were tried today he almost certainly would not have been sentenced to death for a killing that occurred in the course of a robbery.
Jones was tried twice for his crime. After his first trial, the verdict was overturned because the jury had used a Bible during deliberations.
Travis Clinton Hittson
Travis Clinton Hittson was a Navy crewman who he was sentenced to death for the 1992 murder of another sailor when he was just 21 years old. Hittson’s father was an alcoholic who abused Hittson emotionally when he was drunk. He was neglected as a child, according to a defense expert who conducted an assessment. In school, he was mocked for his dirty clothes and poor hygiene. He came across as “extremely needy” and had a learning disability. His three siblings all struggled with alcoholism as well. Hittson began drinking “at a very young age” and also struggled with depression. He made seven suicide attempts as a teenager. The adolescent Hittson was referred to addiction treatment programs twice but never went. At trial, his lawyer did not introduce any mitigation evidence relating to Hittson’s significant history of trauma and mental illness.
Hittson’s psychological testing revealed that he was “passive-dependent” and easily influenced by others. Hittson was manipulated by his direct supervising officer into participating in the murder by telling Hittson that the other sailor was planning to kill them. The defense expert testified that he believed Hittson suffered from Borderline Personality Disorder.
Hittson may have experienced a Stress Induced Psychotic Episode on the night of the murder. Hittson’s supervisor and co-defendant accepted a plea deal and is currently serving a life sentence.
Joshua Daniel Bishop
Joshua Daniel Bishop was executed for his role in the killing of Leverette Morrison. His co-defendant, Mark Braxley, who was age 34 or 35 at the time of the crime, pled guilty and received life without parole. Bishop, who was just 18 years old at the time of the crime, went to trial and received a death sentence.
The victim’s sister wrote the pardons and parole board in order to urge clemency for Bishop. She stated that “It is certainly a hard life in prison, but it is still life. I loved my brother Leverett, but his memory is not honored by killing Josh. I forgive Josh for what he did.”
In addition, seven of the 12 jurors who sentenced Bishop to death joined the clemency request and asked that Bishop be granted life without parole.
Despite clemency efforts, Bishop’s young age at the time of the crime, his violent childhood, and potential manipulation by his much older co-defendant, he was was executed.
Kenneth Earl Fults
Kenny Fults was executed for the killing of a neighbor in 1996. His IQ score was assessed at various times as 68, 74, and 72; an IQ of 74, his highest reading, “means he functions in the lowest 1 percent of the population.” Unlike the law in other states, Georgia’s death penalty laws “require defendants to prove intellectual disability beyond a reasonable doubt.”
Fults offered ample evidence of his disability; most of the evidence was revealed on appeal at the 11th Circuit. That court saw “IQ tests, the academic struggles, the affidavits of family members and teachers and friends detailing his ‘slowness.’” But since the state court rejected the claim of intellectual disability, the 11th Circuit required a showing of “clear and convincing evidence,” and it found that all the information given fell short of this stringent standard.
One of the jurors on his case, Thomas Buffington, “signed an affidavit in 2005 saying ‘that’s what that n****r deserved.’” Fults’ own attorney at trial, Johnny Mostiler, was well known for his public usage of racial slurs. Mostiler also incompetently represented Fults–jurors on the sentencing panel “reported seeing Mr. Mostiler fall asleep numerous times during trial.”
Daniel Anthony Lucas
Daniel Anthony Lucas grew up with “horrific family circumstances” marked by “substance abuse, sexual abuse, alcohol abuse, and abject poverty.” He experienced multiple blows to the head and suffered from “left hemisphere brain dysfunction.” He had a history of “extensive drug abuse” including “everything from cocaine, alcohol, mushrooms, LSD, [and] prescription drugs.” A pharmacology expert “felt strongly that [Lucas] had experienced a blackout or blackouts during the day of the crime.”
When Lucas and his co-defendant Brandon Rhode committed the burglary that ended in homicide, Lucas was only 19 years old–and his psychosocial development was more similar to persons significantly younger than 18. In asking the Supreme Court to stop the execution, his lawyers utilized modern neuroscience to compare Lucas’s situation to the juvenile murder defendants in Roper v. Simmons (which barred the death penalty for juveniles under the age of 18) and Miller v. Alabama (which barred mandatory juvenile life without parole). Sadly, the Supreme Court decided to not stop the execution.
In Kennedy v. Louisiana, the Court found that under the Eighth Amendment, use of the death penalty “must be limited to those offenders … whose extreme culpability makes them the most deserving of execution.” The Court has categorically barred the execution of juveniles under the age of 18 and persons with intellectual disability because they are less culpable. The Court relied, in part, on scientific evidence which demonstrates that the pre-frontal cortex–the part of the brain responsible for judgement, impulse control, and planning–is not fully developed until around age 25. But isn’t an 18 or 19 year old with significant functional impairments just as impaired as a 17 year old? These executions suggest that Georgia has not reserved the death penalty for the most culpable defendants, but rather that they have chosen to execute individuals who are young and have serious mental illnesses and documented intellectual disabilities.