On January 16, 2020, the Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles (the “Board”) issued death-row prisoner Jimmy Meders a rare grant of clemency. The grant, commuting Mr. Meders’ sentence to life in prison without parole, came just six hours before he was scheduled to be executed by lethal injection. Mr. Meders is the tenth person on Georgia’s death row to receive clemency since 1976, with the last clemency grant occurring in 2014. Georgia is now second only to Ohio and tied with Virginia for the total number of individual commutations from death sentences in the modern era of the death penalty.
In 1989, Mr. Meders was convicted and sentenced to death for the 1987 murder of a convenience store clerk, Don Anderson, during a robbery. Mr. Meders, who had no prior criminal history, was sentenced to death four years before the Georgia legislature authorized life without parole as a sentencing option. This fact ended up playing a crucial role in Mr. Meders’ quest for mercy. In his clemency application, counsel for Mr. Meders argued that the jury clearly would have preferred a sentence of life without parole to the death penalty. During sentencing deliberations, the jury even sent the judge a note asking “[i[f the Jury recommends that the accused be sentenced to life imprisonment, can the Jury recommend that the sentence be carried out without [p]arole?”. All living jurors later confirmed in sworn statements that while they did not want to sentence Mr. Meders to death, they felt they had no viable alternative, as they did not want to impose a sentence that would allow for the possibility that Mr. Meders would be granted parole.
Mr. Meders’ clemency application also outlined why the jury was right in wanting to sentence Mr. Meders to life without parole rather than death. The application explained that Mr. Meders’ service in the National Guard, lack of criminal history, and difficult upbringing were mitigating circumstances that convincingly removed him from “the worst of the worst” offenders deserving of death. The application described Mr. Meders’ commission of the crime as a “stark departure from what had been an otherwise productive life. . . . He did not have a criminal history, exhibiting the peaceful and law-abiding behavior to which he returned during his incarceration, where he has earned praise from GDC officials.”
In granting Mr. Meders clemency, the Board outlined the factors relevant to its decision, consistent with a recent change in the law requiring the Board to provide an explanation when granting clemency. These factors reflected the arguments made in Mr. Meders’ clemency application and included his lack of criminal record prior to the 1989 conviction, the fact that he incurred just one minor behavioral infraction during his 30 years on death row, and the jury’s stated desire to impose the unavailable sentence of life without the possibility of parole both during deliberations and confirmed in interviews following trial.
In Georgia, the Board retains exclusive power to grant clemency, including in capital cases. There is no gubernatorial participation in the clemency process apart from the governor appointing members to the Board, which consists of five members who serve staggered terms of seven years. Board member appointments are subject to confirmation by the state Senate. Upon an affirmative vote by a majority of Board members, a death sentence can be commuted to a sentence of life imprisonment without the possibility of parole. Under the state constitution, the General Assembly may only prohibit the Board from granting a pardon or parole under two circumstances: if the person has been incarcerated for a second or subsequent time for any offense eligible for a sentence of life imprisonment; or if the person received consecutive life sentences as a result of offenses occurring during the same series of acts. For more information on clemency in Georgia, visit the Capital Clemency Resource Initiative website.