3 – Brandon Astor Jones (36 Years 4 Months)
On February 3, 2016, Georgia’s oldest Death Row inmate, 72-year-old Brandon Astor Jones, was executed by lethal injection. He spent over 36 years on Death Row after being sentenced to death for murdering Roger Tackett during the robbery of a convenience store in 1979. Jones was the second man to die for the crime; his co-criminal, Van Roosevelt Solomon, was electrocuted in 1985.
It appears as if the two men attempted to rob the convenience store and perhaps Tackett tried to stop them. Both Jones and Solomon had guns, and both fired their weapons, although each man claimed the other fired the fatal bullet. A police officer heard four gunshots in total and arrested both men in the store. He found the seriously wounded Tackett in a locked storeroom, and he later died from his injuries.
While Solomon was executed within six years of the murder, Jones spent decades fighting against his sentence. A federal court ordered a re-sentence in 1989 after it ruled that a Bible was brought into the deliberation room. The court decided that the presence of the holy text would persuade jurors to base their decision on Scripture rather than on the law. However, another jury sentenced Jones to death in 1997, but he continued to appeal. According to Jones, his lawyers did not introduce evidence of his history of childhood sexual abuse and mental illness.
Jones’ case brought to light a disturbing trend in the state of Georgia. In 2005, the state opened the Office of the Georgia Capital Defender. The goal was to find a solution to the age-old problem of defendants on trial for capital crimes with a low standard of representation. When Jones was on trial in the late 1970s, any member of the Georgia Bar could represent someone in a death penalty case. According to Stephen Bright of the Southern Center for Human Rights in Atlanta, the result was that people were sentenced to die because they had a bad lawyer instead of being sentenced for committing a terrible crime.
The case also brought up the issue of racial bias. Both Jones and Solomon were African American, and Georgia has a history of black men and women receiving woefully inadequate defense while also receiving disproportionally harsh sentences. In 1974, five years before Jones committed his crime, a man named Wilburn Wiley Dobbs received a death sentence for murder during a robbery. He court-appointed attorney didn’t bother trying to mount a defense and called Dobbs ‘boy’ throughout the trial. The attorney later admitted that he believed black people were inferior to whites.
There are numerous other instances of probable racial bias in capital crime trials, but in 1987, the Supreme Court ruled in the McCleskey case that racial bias in handing down death sentences wasn’t unconstitutional unless intent was proven. Critics called it ‘New Jim Crow’ and suggested that the ruling immunized the justice system from instances of racial bias.
Jones made a final attempt to have his sentence commuted to life imprisonment in January 2016, but failed and was executed by lethal injection on February 3, 2016. It was a messy execution and took almost an hour as the executioners struggled to find an appropriate vein on Jones’ left and right arms. Eventually, a doctor injected it into his groin.