GAINESVILLE - The State Board of Pardons and Paroles' silence on the July 10 clemency it granted a death-row inmate in a 1991 murder case has stirred strong emotions in north Georgia, with ripple effects possibly leading to the doors of the 2015 General Assembly.
"I think that we, as a state, owe the family an explanation why that sentence didn't get carried out," said state Sen. Steve Gooch, R-Dahlonega, adding that the lack of a reason is "tragic."
The five-member board's decision to commute Tommy Lee Waldrip for his part in the murder of Forsyth County grocery store manager Keith Lloyd Evans to life in prison without parole evoked strong reaction by itself.
But the board's later decision to deny Dawson County's request to declassify materials related to the decision has inspired a call for change that has riled several groups and piqued the interest of Gooch, whose district includes Dawson. Evans lived in Dawsonville.
Gooch said he's "anxious to hear what we can do in the General Assembly to open that process up a little bit more and make it more transparent. Whether that requires legislation or not, I don't know.
"I'm satisfied there'll be some discussion between now and January about a piece of legislation to make that happen."
Also eyeing the debate is the Georgia First Amendment Foundation.
"The issue of prime concern to the First Amendment community is not whether or not any given defendant is released - rather that the public knows almost nothing about the process of release," executive director Hollie Manheimer said.
"Public safety is a huge issue of public concern and this board's decisions impacts public safety. The public has a keen interest in its decisions."
Evans' sister, Angela DeCoursey, said her family was "not at all surprised" the parole board refused to release the information regarding its decision, based on "the positions of power this five-member board has."
"We are very disappointed, however, to know that the taxpayers of this state pay over half a million to this board, [which] does not have to be accountable for their actions."
DeCoursey said her family has not decided on future steps, if any.
"We ... feel we have exhausted all efforts, basically to no avail," she said. "Injustice has truly prevailed and we have been forced to accept it."
DeCoursey did say she hopes that "very soon, the law will be changed to avoid this happening to other families."
Northeastern Judicial Circuit District Attorney Lee Darragh said that in the clemency hearing he participated in, some parole board members seemed focused on "flawed reasoning" that "equally culpable" co-defendant John Mark Waldrip, Tommy Waldrip's son, didn't get the death penalty that he had sought "from a different jury in a different county."
In separate trials, Howard Livingston and John Mark Waldrip were sentenced to life in prison for their parts in Evans' beating death.
When asked about the transparency issues raised in this case, parole board spokesman Steve Hayes only said the board "has discretion under the law to determine whether it is appropriate to declassify information" and that its authority is derived from the Georgia Constitution.
Waldrip's attorneys and family couldn't be reached for comment. James Mills, a Hall County resident and former state representative who serves on the parole board, also couldn't be reached.
Sasha Dlugolenski, a spokeswoman for Gov. Nathan Deal said, "There is a healthy distance between the governor and the State Board of Pardons and Paroles, as required by law.
"The only role the governor plays in this whole process is the ability to appoint board members subject to confirmation by the state Senate. Therefore, something of this nature would not fall under our jurisdiction."
The state's Open Records Act, which was last revised in 2012, exempts documents related to "the deliberations and voting of the state Board of Pardons and Paroles."
In addition, the law states, the "board may close a meeting held for the purpose of receiving information or evidence for or against clemency or in revocation proceedings if it determines that the receipt of such information or evidence in open meeting would present a substantial risk of harm or injury to a witness."
Dawson County Attorney Joey Homans said the county wants the classified information to be revealed in the pardons and parole board's annual report to the governor.
He said Georgia is one of a handful of states that does not require the governor, "or at least some elected officer," to be involved in clemency issues.
"If we receive no progress, we may request that the statute be rewritten. We're now waiting to see how it unfolds," he said.
Homans said he is working on letters to the governor, Attorney General Sam Olens, Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle, House Speaker David Ralston, Rep. Kevin Tanner, R-Dawsonville, and Gooch on the matter.
Olens' spokeswoman Lauren Kane said state law gives the board "the discretion to seal records ... and does not give us the authority to unseal them."
She noted that in the early 1940s, questions were raised about the handling of pardons by some governors' offices.
Public concern led the General Assembly to enact legislation, signed into law in February 1943, which created the State Board of Pardons and Paroles as an independent agency to administer executive clemency.
In August 1943, Georgia voters ratified an amendment to the state constitution to establish the parole board's authority "to grant paroles, pardons and reprieves, to commute sentences, including death sentences, to remit sentences, and to remove disabilities imposed by law."
The board also was given a staff of parole officers to investigate cases and supervise persons granted parole.
Darragh said an area of concern is that the board conducts its own investigations.
"To review and rely on the record, transcripts and the like is perhaps a good thing," he said. "However, to re-interview the defendant himself ... and allow him to make up whatever facts about the crime that he would without any access to that interview by the prosecutor or opportunity to refute those alleged facts is contrary to any sense of a proper legal process."
Gooch said legislators moving forward on the issue need "to be careful with changing all of those procedures.
"We don't want to do it too quickly or out of emotion, but at the same time the process worked [in the Waldrip case], the judicial system did its job ... and the family deserves some explanation."
"The only silver lining here," Darragh said, "is that Tommy Lee Waldrip will never see the light of day, with [his sentence]. In that both the remaining co-defendants unfortunately do have parole eligibility, it should be that they too should never see the light of day themselves."
DCN staff writer Michele Hester contributed to this report.