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Georgia execution would mark milestones in death penalty dealings

Should the state of Georgia execute Gregory Paul Lawler as planned Wednesday night, it will mark a milestone in at least two different ways.

Lawler was sentenced to death for the 1997 killing of Atlanta police officer John Sowa. His execution, set for 7 p.m. Wednesday, would be the seventh in Georgia in 2016. That would make two more than in 2015 and make Georgia the only state in the nation accelerating the rate of executions year over year. That’s the first milestone.

As for the second, Lawler’s execution would tie Georgia with Texas for the number of executions this year. Texas generally leads the nation.

Richard Dunham, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, said this is because something new is happening in Texas that isn’t happening in Georgia.

“The state courts in Georgia are not granting hearings to consider evidence that there was police misconduct or prosecutorial misconduct or junk science that was being used,” Dunham said.

State courts in Texas are considering those factors now that state law allows for it. The law was changed after a number of high profile exonerations in death row cases. Executions in Texas have been cut in half since 2015, as some inmates have won stays of execution.

Lawler’s attorneys argued for clemency to Georgia’s parole board on the basis of his recent autism diagnosis, according to court briefs. Were that evidence presented in court, the resulting decision would be public record. The parole board, appointed by the governor, is not bound by law to share details of its findings. The board denied Lawler’s clemency request Tuesday.

Despite the increase in the number of executions in Georgia, the handing of down of death sentences by juries continues to slow. Lawler’s conviction in 2000 came at the tail end of the peak for capital punishment in Georgia following its reinstatement in the 1970s.

Until 2000, the state averaged 10 death sentences a year. Since 2000 that number has been closer to two a year. There were no death sentences handed down in 2015, which was the sixth year Georgia juries could choose life without the possibility of parole instead of a death sentence.

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