Several recent crimes involving recidivists who had fired guns at people during previous assaults got me thinking about the charge of attempted murder. Why is it that we almost never hear about an attempted murder case?
Turns out I didn’t need to look far for an answer. When I typed in the question, I found the most user-friendly prosecutor’s website I’ve seen. District Attorney Kelly R. Burke, of Houston County, Georgia, posts articles about case outcomes in his district, funding issues, and explanations of Georgia law. This level of transparency by a prosecutor’s office (or anyone else in the courts) is practically unheard-of. Burke clearly believes that the public has the right to know what is going on in their criminal justice system. How odd of him.
Houston County, Georgia is south of Macon and north of Unadilla, in the center of the state. It is also closer to the Twenty-First Century than virtually any other prosecutorial district in any state.
Here is D.A. Burke’s explanation for the dearth of attempted murder prosecutions over the last thirty years, in Georgia, at least. According to Burke, the state may see more attempted murder charges now that the law has changed.
Attempted Murder is Back!
The reason was that Georgia law was a bit archaic in how it punished “attempted murder”, with a punishment that had a maximum of 10 years in prison. As a result, prosecutors instead went with aggravated assault or aggravated battery, which has a 20 year maximum prison sentence. Plus aggravated assault or battery is far easier to prove since all the prosecutor has to prove is intent to harm, not intent to kill. Long story made short, prosecutors simply never charged attempted murder because it wasn’t worth the trouble.
That has changed with the enactment of a new Georgia law that went into effect on July 1, 2007. As of that date, anyone charged with “attempted murder” is facing up to 30 years in the state prison system. Naturally you can expect prosecutors to be using attempted murder far more frequently than in the past because now the sentence fits the crime. The Legislature probably settled on 30 years for “attempted murder” since a defendant is now first eligible for parole on a murder conviction after 30 years (previously, it was 14 years).
So now you know why attempted murder was not charged before, but is charged more frequently now.
This explains why there are only seven people serving state time for attempted murder in Georgia, compared to thousands serving time or on parole for aggravated assault.
But there is another story lurking in the past and present inmate records of those convicted of attempted murder in Georgia, a story that challenges all the conventional wisdom about America being some police state where people are subjected to draconian sentencing for the slightest violation of the law. Since the early 1970’s*, 47% of people convicted of attempted murder in Georgia and sent to state prison served less than a year in prison for the crime. This number does not even include those who were never placed in the state system at all. Given the brevity of many of these prison terms — one to three months is not uncommon — it is reasonable to assume that many people convicted of this crime did not get sent to state prisons at all.
Nor are the longer sentences handed down for this crime in any way harsh. Since 1971, twenty people (26%) have been given sentences longer than five years for attempted murder in Georgia, and 12 of those people (15%) were sentenced to the maximum ten years**. In addition to light sentences going in, until laws changed recently, every convict’s sentence was slashed before he or she even stepped into prison, usually to less that half of the sentence’s length. Here are some sentences and time served:
- 1971, 1 year sentence, served 1 month
- 1980, 2 year sentence, served 5 months
- 1988, 10 year sentence, served 2 years, 10 months
- 1999, 3 year sentence, served 1 year, 8 months
- 2007, 5 year sentence, still serving time
Both sentence length and time served for this crime began creeping up in the early 1990’s, though the small number of cases here makes it hard to draw too many conclusions. And as DA Burke explains, prosecutors were using aggravated assault charges in virtually all cases that were actually attempted murders. More clear is the gradual disappearance of the “one-year sentence/one month served” pattern that held through the 1970’s. Nine of the 12 ten-year sentences for attempted murder have been handed down since 1988.
There is a lot you cannot know by looking at state-level inmate records.***
But one thing is indisputable: the vast majority of people convicted of attempted murder in Georgia over the past 35 years have received a mere slap on the wrist for the crime. When newspaper editorialists and anti-incarceration activists scream about the “disgraceful” size of our prison population or complain that three-strikes laws and minimum mandatory sentencing is cruel, vindictive and unusual punishment, remember this: it’s only unusual, not vindictive, nor cruel.
In reality, it is shamefully unusual for violent criminals to be sentenced to prison terms that actually reflect the seriousness of their crimes. Most of them get off easy, even when the charge is trying to kill someone.
*The Georgia Department of Corrections website lists 78 people convicted of attempted murder. All but two of these cases are from 1971 onward. One conviction is from 1935 and one from 1952. The 1935 case is an escapee.
**Two convicts were sentenced to twenty years for attempted murder. Both had other, simultaneous, serious charges. One convict was given two ten-year sentences for two attempted murders. Of course, he is permitted to serve them concurrently, so he is actually serving time for only one of two crimes.
***Women, for example, are relatively over-represented among state convicts with attempted murder convictions. There are many more men than women, but there is a higher percentage of women than other violent crimes. So attempted murder is probably used to deal with cases of domestic violence — a contradictory and fast-changing area of law.