On the night of June 20, the United States will mark a grim milestone: the 1,500th execution since the return of the death penalty in 1976. Forty-two-year-old Marion Wilson Jr. is scheduled to die by lethal injection on Thursday at the Georgia Diagnostic and Classification Prison in Jackson. A clemency hearing will take place in Atlanta beforehand, but the execution will almost certainly proceed. The Georgia Department of Corrections announced Wilson’s last meal last week: thin-crust pizza, chicken wings, and ice cream.
If there’s nothing inherently significant about the number 1,500, it is at least a moment for reflection. The 1,000th execution in the U.S. took place amid candlelight vigils in North Carolina in 2005. Cameron Todd Willingham had been executed in Texas the previous year, for a crime many now recognize he did not commit. Then-President George W. Bush — who himself oversaw 152 executions in Texas — took the occasion to laud the death penalty, with no sense of irony, as saving “innocent lives.” Yet there were also signs of the death penalty’s decline. Earlier that year, the U.S. Supreme Court had outlawed death sentences for juvenile defendants, a historic ban already in place throughout most of the world.
Today, the shifting landscape around the death penalty remains filled with such contradictions. The White House is occupied by a man who fantasizes about executing drug dealers, yet executions and new death sentences are on a steep downward trend. Sixty executions were carried out across the country in 2005. Last year, there were 25. North Carolina has not carried out an execution since 2006, with a recent report calling its death penalty system a “relic of another era.” In the meantime, nine states have ended the death penalty by legislation or court order, while another four have put a moratorium in place.
Yet executions persist. In some states, they are surging. Last year, the electric chair returned to Tennessee, a state that had seen no executions for the better part of a decade, only to kill four men in just over nine months. Now it is confronting doubts over the guilt of a man it killed years ago. Faced with a crisis over lethal injection, the U.S. Supreme Court has repeatedly refused to rein in the machinery of death, upholding execution methods that experts describe as torture. The death penalty may be dying, but it will not go quickly or quietly.
It is perhaps fitting that the 1,500th execution should take place in the state that ushered in what we commonly call the “modern death penalty era.” It was a Georgia case — Furman v. Georgia — that led the U.S. Supreme Court to stop executions in 1972, on the basis that it was arbitrary and capriciously applied. Four years later, Gregg v. Georgia upheld a revised death penalty law that would become a model for other states — a new chapter in capital punishment. Executions resumed the next year.
But promise of Gregg was never fulfilled. Instead, the four-year gap between Furman and Gregg created a false distinction between the death penalty then and now; one that would sever executions from their roots in racial violence — especially in the South — while giving cover to a system that remained largely unchanged: racist, biased against the poor, and condemning the most vulnerable rather than the “worst of the worst.”
Georgia has consistently exposed the ugliest truths about who we condemn to die.
With some 50 people on death row — and having carried out 73 executions since Gregg — Georgia is neither the largest nor the most active death penalty state in the country. But it has consistently exposed the ugliest truths about who we condemn to die. Almost eight years ago, the state killed Troy Davis amid widespread outcry. In 2015 alone, Georgia killed a Vietnam veteran with severe PTSD, a man diagnosed with an IQ of 70, a woman who became a theologian and mentor to scores of incarcerated women, and a man who credibly insisted until his last breath that he was innocent. The next year, Georgia killed Kenneth Fults despite a juror’s openly racist views. Earlier this year, the U.S. Supreme Court refused to take a case involving another racist juror, who wondered “if black people even have souls.”
Against this backdrop, the case of Marion Wilson is notable in one important way. Unlike most who face execution in the U.S., he was sentenced to die for killing a black person. According to the Death Penalty Information Center, of the 1,499 executions carried out to date, 1,170 involved white victims. In Georgia, this dynamic was especially stark at the time Wilson was tried. By the time he arrived on death row in 1997, 22 people had been executed in Georgia’s death chamber. All but two victims in those cases were white.
“What we can clearly see here with Georgia is that black lives continue to not matter, except maybe when they are blue,” says Abe Bonowitz, director of Death Penalty Action, which is coordinating demonstrations against the 1,500th execution. Had the victim in his case not been a law enforcement officer, “would the prosecutors have sought the death penalty? The statistics say no.”
In other ways, Wilson’s case is all too typical. Like so many who end up on death row, he was represented by lawyers who had no experience with capital cases. One later went to prison himself. This was an era, as veteran death penalty attorney Stephen Bright wrote in 1994, in which death sentences were imposed “not for the worst crime, but for the worst lawyer.” It was not until 2005 that the state opened the office of the Georgia Capital Defender to provide attorneys qualified to handle capital cases. Speaking to me about another Georgia execution, in 2016, Bright called cases like these “zombie cases,” convictions that reveal the unfairness of Georgia’s old death penalty system.
This phenomenon goes well beyond Georgia. If the 1,500th execution can tell us anything about capital punishment in the modern death penalty era, it’s how stuck in the past it actually is.
There is no denying that the murder that sent Wilson to death row was senseless and cruel.
It was the night of March 28, 1996. Donovan Corey Parks had left the home he shared with his father and brother in Milledgeville, Georgia, to buy cat food. The 24-year-old worked full-time as a prison guard, but that day, he’d done a shift at the Winn-Dixie where he worked to make ends meet. As he exited the local Walmart, Parks was approached by 19-year-old Wilson and 18-year-old Robert Earl Butts Jr. Witnesses said Butts asked if Parks could give them a lift. “And the victim, being the nice guy he was, said, “Sure, I’ll give you a ride,” then-District Attorney Fred Bright told jurors in 1997. The pair had a sawed-off shotgun. Soon after that, Parks was dead from a blast to the head.
By an awful twist of fate, Parks was discovered by his own father, Freddie Parks, who was driving to see a friend when he saw a body lying face down on the road in a pool of blood. He ran to the nearest house to call 911, waiting for police to arrive. “But I didn’t have no idea that was my own son,” Parks would later testify. It was only after he left that he realized that the suit the dead man was wearing looked like the one his son had worn to church that night.
“The state cannot prove who pulled the trigger in this case. I’ll tell you that point-blank.”
The murder enraged residents of Baldwin County, a community closely identified with the Georgia Department of Corrections. The elder Parks, who worked with the GDC himself, had just lost his wife the year before. It was his son Donovan who often took care of things around the house, including the cat his wife had left behind. As Wilson’s trial got underway in the fall of 1997, a large portion of the prospective jury pool were employed by — or related to employees of — nearby prisons or jails.
Wilson insisted from the start that he had not set out to kill anyone that day. In a taped interrogation, he repeatedly told police that Butts had shot Parks. There was reason to believe that Wilson was the least culpable of the two; prosecutors initially offered Wilson a plea deal, but he refused, insisting that he should not be held responsible for someone else’s actions. At trial, Bright conceded that he did not have evidence that Wilson was the gunman. “The state cannot prove who pulled the trigger in this case. I’ll tell you that point-blank,” he said, adding, “It could have been either one.” Nevertheless, the jury convicted Wilson and sent him to die.
But at Butts’ trial the next year, Bright changed the story. He cast Butts as the triggerman, based on the statements of jailhouse informants who claimed that Butts had admitted his guilt. Such testimony is highly unreliable, a common factor in wrongful convictions, but it was more than he had against Wilson — and good enough for a death sentence. In 1998, Butts, too, was sentenced to die.
Wilson had been on death row for 10 years when the Atlanta Journal-Constitution published a front-page special report in its Sunday edition. “Death Still Arbitrary” was the 2007 headline, part of a series investigating the state’s death penalty system. It found that of the 132 “most heinous” murders in the state over a recent 10-year span, only 29 had ended in death sentences. There was nothing clear to set these apart from the remaining 103. Decades after Furman, the report concluded, paraphrasing one of the iconic quotes from the decision, “getting the death penalty in Georgia is as predictable as a lightning strike.”
The findings of the AJC investigation would be familiar to anyone who studies the death penalty today. As in other states, death sentences came down to the county in which the crime was committed and the DA in charge at the time. Prosecutors did not exactly dispute this point; the newspaper quoted one DA who simply said about a death penalty case, “You know it when you see it.”
To illustrate the arbitrariness of Georgia’s death penalty statute in practice, the AJC chose the convictions of Wilson and Butts. Their crime had striking similarities to a 1995 murder in a nearby county — one in which two young men killed a college student from Gambia. In both cases, the co-defendants had asked for a ride, then shot the victim and burned the car. In both cases, who exactly fire the fatal shot remained unclear. Yet Wilson and Butts were sentenced to die, whereas the other men received life without parole.
In theory, there was supposed to be a safeguard against such disparate outcomes: a process called comparative proportionality review. When Georgia revised its death penalty statute following Furman, it included the requirement that the Georgia Supreme Court regularly assess capital cases to ensure that sentences were not “excessive or disproportionate to the penalty imposed in similar cases, considering both the crime and the defendant.” But, according to a sweeping study by the American Bar Association, this stopped happening in 1994 — before Wilson was even tried. Rather than consider all murder cases that could have resulted in a death sentence, the court merely began finding examples of similar crimes that sent other defendants to death row. The review became a toothless exercise, “incapable of uncovering potentially serious disparities — whether those disparities are geographical, racial or ethnic, or attributable to any other inappropriate factor,” the ABA found.
In 2008, the U.S. Supreme Court denied certiorari to a black man who challenged his death sentence based in part on Georgia’s failure to conduct proportionality review. Justice John Paul Stevens expressed alarm about the case, noting that the Supreme Court’s historic decision in Gregg was based “on an understanding that the new procedures the statute prescribed would protect against the imposition of death sentences influenced by impermissible factors such as race.” But in this case, the state Supreme Court had barely glanced at similarly situated defendants before rubber-stamping the death sentence. In fact, Stevens wrote, “It now appears to be the court’s practice never to consider cases in which the jury sentenced the defendant to life imprisonment.” Such a “truncated review,” he wrote, is likely to lead to “the arbitrary or discriminatory imposition of death sentences in contravention of the Eighth Amendment.”
The situation is not unique to Georgia. In Tennessee, whose death penalty law also requires proportionality review, the state Supreme Court has “eviscerated” the process, according to a major death penalty study published last year. The state’s own post-Furman statute was modeled on Georgia’s, to ensure that death penalty cases were “distinguishable in a meaningful way from non-capital first degree murder cases.” Instead, the authors found, the state’s death penalty is “a cruel lottery, entrenching the very problems that the court sought to eradicate.”
On June 12, Wilson’s lawyers submitted a clemency petition to the Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles. It shed light on his childhood, one that resembles the background of so many who end up on death row. “Marion Wilson’s life from conception to incarceration was characterized by instability, neglect, abuse and trauma,” they write. As with many cases, this history was only uncovered after Wilson was sent to death row.
Evidence of Wilson’s early suffering was previously described in his state habeas filings. Raised by a single mother who was herself a victim of abuse, their home lacked heat, water, and food. At one point, Wilson’s mother took him to live with her father in Oklahoma, but the grandfather, who was white, rejected him because he was black. Like other male figures who came in and out of Wilson’s life, the man beat him constantly.
At an evidentiary hearing years ago, a slew of witnesses described Wilson as a vulnerable child abandoned first by his parents and then by the state. “I remember telling one of the other teachers that Marion didn’t stand a chance growing up in such circumstances,” one of his former elementary school teachers testified. An attorney who represented Wilson in juvenile court remembered him as “someone who needed and actually wanted someone to look up to” but had “essentially no parents and no home.” An expert on the state’s juvenile justice system testified that Wilson’s case contained “every risk factor I can think of.”
At an evidentiary hearing, a slew of witnesses described Wilson as a vulnerable child abandoned first by his parents and then by the state.
Yet numerous witnesses also descried how Wilson showed potential, especially when placed in a structured environment. He thrived for a time under the supervision of the Georgia Youth Development Center, gaining early release. The law required that he be subsequently supervised by the Department of Juvenile Justice, but his case fell through the cracks.
In a failing that was emblematic of the era, Wilson’s trial attorneys did not investigate this evidence, presenting a limited picture during the penalty phase. Although they elicited testimony of a time that a young Wilson saw his mother’s common-law husband put a gun to her head, they left largely unchallenged the prosecution’s contention that Wilson had “more than every chance in life.” The clemency petition quotes one juror who has said she would likely not have voted for the death penalty if she had known more about his background.
Fred Bright, the district attorney, testified years later that he personally believed Butts probably shot Parks. But he defended his actions at Wilson’s trial. He did not live to see Georgia carry out either of the death sentences, however. Bright died in May of last year, just one week before Butts was killed by lethal injection. But Freddie Parks was there as a witness. Now in his 70s, he plans to attend Wilson’s execution as well.
“It’s not easy,” Parks told me on the phone last week. “It’s not easy to wait 23 years.” It was by the grace of God that he lived this long, he said. But he does not expect Wilson’s death to bring him any closure over his son’s murder. After leaving the prison last time, Parks said, “I felt just like I’m feeling now. Just aggravated, really. Like it never should have happened.”