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A possible end to confidential state secrets: Kevin Evans murder case sparks House Bill
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GA Capitol

Local House Rep. Kevin Tanner last week introduced legislation that, if approved, would dramatically change the way the Georgia Pardons and Paroles board operates.

Having been involved in the Keith Evans murder case in 1991 and attending the hearings in front of the pardons board, and their decision to commute the death sentence without giving any reason why, I saw first-hand how the family struggled with that, Tanner said Monday. The family waited 24 years. They deserved to have answers.

Tanner was referring to the boards July 9, 2014, decision to commute the death sentence of convicted killer Tommy Lee Waldrip, 66, a Dawson County resident. Waldrip had been on Georgias death row more than 20 years.

He was scheduled to be executed the next day for the brutal beating and shooting death of Keith Evans, a 1985 graduate of Dawson County High School who was studying to be an accountant.

Waldrip had robbed at gunpoint a convenience store in Cumming where Evans worked on Apr. 13, 1991. Evans volunteered to be a witness for the state and was murdered less than 48-hours before the trial began.

At the time the pardons board granted clemency to Waldrip, it refused to release details of its decision or how its five-man board voted, to the media, the family, the Dawson County district attorney, Sheriff Billy Carlisle, the Georgia Sheriffs Association or the Dawson County Board of Commissioners, all of whom requested information.

The bill comes just six months after the Dawson News & Advertiser published a series of articles that examined the veil of secrecy under which the board operates.

The board denied the medias request to release information about its decision, saying its actions were, confidential state secrets.

A 1953 law signed by Gov. Herman Talmadge allowed the board to operate in total secrecy.

The Dawson News & Advertiser was involved from day one, Tanner said. I think they were the catalyst for other news organizations that picked up the story. This is a prime example of how a local story can have a state-wide impact, and it shows how important those local stories are.

HB 71 requires much greater transparency from the pardons board, including: To allow public inspection of all records, papers and documents the board uses in making a decision, with limited exceptions.

Requires the board to produce a written decision when it grants a pardon or commutes a death sentence that includes the boards findings, and each board members vote. The report would be public.

Strikes a provision that bars the board from releasing information on a parolee whose civil rights were restored.I feel that in these types of situations that the agency funded with taxpayer dollars needs to operate in a transparent manner, Tanner said. Families deserve to have answers and to not get them is unacceptable.

Each board member is governor-appointed and serves a seven-year term. Each is paid on average $126,777 of state taxpayer money.

Georgia is one of only four states whose pardons and paroles board has the sole discretion to grant clemency. Other states are Nebraska, Nevada and Utah.

Tanner said a national conference held in San Diego, California, last year highlighted a greater need for transparency across all pardons and paroles boards.

The main topic was transparency and moving the parole and pardons boards into the 21st century, Tanner said. Even people in the system realize they have to do a better job.

Information such as Social Security numbers, home addresses and phone numbers would continue to be kept out of the public eye.

I just feel like the bill will allow the board to continue to do their job in a good way, but also give the public more information, which builds the publics trust, he said. In most cases the pardons and paroles board is doing a good job.

Tanner said he knows of no other taxpayer-funded agency in Georgia that is allowed to have confidential state secrets.

Co-sponsors of the bill include Rich Golick, chair of the judicial, non-civil committee; Johnny Caldwell, a retired superior court judge; Alex Atwood, chair of the subcommittee for appropriating funds for public safety and a federal law enforcement officer; and Mary-Margaret Oliver, who heads up the Georgia First Amendment group.

I think I have a good cross section of support in the House and Senate, Tanner said. But, this is politics. Well have to wait and see.

HB 71 will be read in the House on Monday, Jan. 26 and then assigned to committee.

After that I will request a hearing, so were looking at a couple weeks, Tanner said.

Keith Evans sister, Angela DeCoursey, was reached for comment.

My family and I appreciate all that representative Kevin Tanner has done to change the law, she said, so that no other family will have to experience what we have gone through.