Offhand I can’t remember another case in which a prosecutor who’s on record as opposing capital punishment has changed their mind and sought death for a particular defendant. That’s because objections to capital punishment are usually framed in moral terms. Some opponents believe the state shouldn’t have the awesome power to take a citizen’s life. Others believe the risk of executing an inmate who’s actually innocent is too great — a criticism with special relevance lately.
D.A.s who support capital punishment in principle frequently opt not to seek it in particular murder cases. But I’ve never heard of a D.A. who opposes capital punishment opting to seek it anyway. Until now.
A year ago Fani Willis was one of three candidates for Fulton County D.A. The guy who held the job was running for reelection and pledged at a candidate forum that he’d no longer seek capital punishment in murder trials. That put pressure on his two opponents to follow suit. Which they did:
Willis, a former chief deputy in the Fulton DA’s office, said she has prosecuted hundreds of murders. “None of those cases I believed were appropriate for death,” she said.
The one exception might be the case against Brian Nichols, who killed four people — a judge, a court reporter, a sheriff’s deputy and a federal agent — after escaping from custody while on trial for rape in March 2005, Willis said. But after the DA’s office spent millions of dollars prosecuting Nichols, his jury could not unanimously agree on a death sentence and he was sentenced to life without parole.
“I cannot foresee a case (in which) I would seek death, as I believe that life without parole is an appropriate remedy,” Willis said.
Note that Willis *wasn’t* an absolutist of the sort who believes that capital punishment is always immoral. She did remember a case where it might have been warranted. Still, the Death Penalty Information Center celebrated the candidate forum, declaring that “Atlanta is poised to become the latest in a growing number of U.S. cities in which prosecutors have pledged not to seek the death penalty or to use it more sparingly.”
They’ll have to settle for “more sparingly.” Willis announced today that she’s seeking death for the degenerate who murdered eight people at massage parlors around Atlanta, including four in Fulton County, back in March. Watch, then read on.
Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis says she will seek death penalty for the Atlanta spa shootings suspect, despite campaigning on her opposition to it: "Unfortunately, a case has arisen in the first few months of my term that I believe warrants the ultimate penalty" pic.twitter.com/edvxmvcf4F
— CBS News (@CBSNews) May 11, 2021
Was she right to change her mind? Well, eight victims is an unusually heinous murder toll. As a moral matter he warrants the worst penalty we can inflict. There’s also no doubt that he’s actually guilty. His own parents turned him in when they saw the surveillance video of the shooter and they told cops that a tracker they had placed on his car could trace his movements for them. The cops nabbed him en route to Florida and matched his car to surveillance footage taken outside the spas. He also confessed to police afterward, telling them that he thought he had a “sex addiction” and wanted to destroy the source of his temptation. They don’t have the wrong guy.
I think the clincher for Willis was motive, though. She intends to seek a hate-crime sentence enhancement, believing that the shooter targeted some of his victims because they were Asian. She said elsewhere during her press conference that the enhancement sends a “message that everyone in this community is valued.” The tricky part there is that the shooter allegedly told cops that he didn’t have a racial motive. It was purely his desire to end his “sex addiction” that led him to start firing, or so he says. Whether Willis has evidence to the contrary or if she’s just trusting that the jury will assume that multiple Asian victims necessarily means racism, I don’t know. But if racist motive is what the case for capital punishment is based on, it’s wobbly. Stay tuned.