Crime and punishment have followed each other as long as law and order have existed. But over the years, lawmakers and the legal system have worked together to try and match the appropriate punishment with the committed crime. The morning of January 4, 2016 still shakes Shameika Averett to the core because of a brutal crime that changed her and her family’s life forever.
“I kissed [my mother] on the cheek for the last time,” Averett said. “I didn’t know that was the last time I’d see her.”
Averett’s mother Gloria Short, Short’s 17-year-old son Caleb, and Averett’s 11-year-old daughter Gionna were brutally murdered in a Upatoi home last year. Police arrested three suspects in the case.
“At times I don’t even think of them as human,” Averett explained. “But I would hope they’d feel some kind of remorse. It would be great if we could telepathically allow them to feel what we feel.”
Averett finds it difficult to visit the graves of her loved ones. It’s part of the reason why she would not seek the death penalty if the suspects accused of killing her family were convicted.
“We don’t really have a right as human beings to kill somebody else,” Averett said.
Capital punishment is a complicated process. Not every murder warrants the death penalty. Major Gil Slouchick with the Columbus Police Department says each case has a different set of circumstances.
“It’s not as cut and dry as people think it is,” Maj. Slouchick said. “It takes some investigation, talking to witnesses, sorting through the facts of the case. A lot of times it has to do with the medical examiner. A lot of times, it has to do with the forensics we get back.”
In Georgia, only murders with aggravating circumstances, or murders committed during another felony, can warrant the death penalty. Police then share their findings with the District Attorney’s Office. The Georgia Supreme Court reviews the DA’s case, and then decides whether to proceed to a trial.
“It’s our job as representatives of the state of Georgia to seek the death penalty when it’s appropriate,” Don Kelly said.
Kelly works in the Violent Crimes Unit of the Muscogee County District Attorney’s Office. Kelly says death penalty cases are extremely rare not just in the Chattahoochee Valley Judicial Circuit, but nationwide. Chief Judge Gil McBride says while the circuit handles 11,000-13,000 cases a year, there have only been two capital cases in the circuit in the past eight years.
McBride says the history of the death penalty goes far back in history. He says in medieval times, capital punishment was much more frequent because people had a different mindset towards punishment.
“We would say it’s brutal,” Judge McBride explained. “But I think they would say they were being humane, because the consensus opinion was long sentences were inhumane. It was better to carry out a sentence immediately, than to put someone in a lengthy period of confinement.”
Today, heavy costs in both time and money cut down on the use of the death penalty. Judges, lawyers, and juries can spend about five times longer in capital punishment cases than in the average murder case.
“You could be looking at anywhere between $500,000 to $1 million just to get it through the trial level,” Judge McBride said. “You see a lot more hearings and a lot more courtroom time. I would imagine that would take its toll on the victim’s family and certainly on the defendant and their family too, the lawyers and their families.”
Lengthy appeals can tie up some court cases for up to 20-30 years, McBride recalled from his experience. Opponents of the death penalty believe neither the time nor the money are worth taking one life for another. And over time, life without parole has become a relatively feasible alternative. Some capital punishment detractors also believe there could be the possibility of an error in the system, and the wrong person could be sentenced to death.
Still, supporters argue the punishment should fit the crime.
“I’ve always supported capital punishment,” Sen. Josh McKoon (R-GA, Columbus) said. “Obviously it should be reserved for the most heinous crimes.”
Sen. McKoon believes that the people left to pick up the pieces after a brutal murder deserve a different kind of justice. He says safety justifies the potential expenses that could pile up in death penalty cases.
“To me, it’s not a dollars and cents issue,” Sen. McKoon told News 3. “It’s a question of what are we doing to keep our people safe. And if there’s an expense associated with that, so be it.”
McKoon recalled the stocking strangler case in Columbus back in the late 1970’s. He says capital punishment keeps unstable criminals off the street and could shield innocent citizens from more violence.
“When you’re dealing with a sociopath like that, I mean the same thing is true for Carlton Gary, if Carlton Gary were released tomorrow, he’d be an immediate threat to whatever community he was living in.”
Ultimately, state lawmakers control the direction of the death penalty. They can choose to keep it on the books, or erase that chapter completely. And while Shameika Averett would like to erase the latest tragic chapter in her story, she’s content with closure in the form of life without parole.
“The death penalty would only cause us more pain over the years,” Averett said. “And we’ll never ever ever get over it.Knowing that they will never be able to walk the streets again and enjoy any type of quality of life, I’m okay with that.”
A grand jury indicted the three suspects police arrested in connection with last year’s triple murder case. Javarceay tapley and Rufus Burks would both be ineligible for the death penalty if convicted, because they were both minors when they were arrested. Georgia law states that criminals have to be 18 to be eligible for the death penalty. The family of the murder victims would most likely not push for a capital punishment trial involving Raheam Gibson. All three are awaiting trial. If convicted, the suspects could face life in prison.