DAWSON COUNTYDawson County law enforcement officials, family and friends of a young man who loved to play tennis and bake chocolate oatmeal cookies are devastated that his killer will not be executed.
Cleve Evans, father of murder victim Keith Evans, broke his silence for the first time Friday, one day after the State Board of Pardons and Paroles commuted the death sentence of Tommy Lee Waldrip, 68, to life without parole.
Waldrip was scheduled todie by lethal injectionless than 26 hours later for his role in the brutal beating and shooting death of 23-year-old Evans.
Theres one thing I forgot to mention yesterday at the clemency hearing, which is how bad it is that every day when I go to work, and every time I pay my taxes, that some of my money is being used to keep the man alive that murdered my son, Cleve Evans said. Im having a pretty hard time with that.
Waldrip was the oldest man on Georgias death row.
Two others--Waldrips son, John Mark, and the elder Waldrips brother-in-law, Howard Livingston--are serving life sentences for their parts.
Evans was the only witness to come forward to testify against Waldrip at his 1990 trial for armed robbery of the Cumming Food Mart, where Evans worked as a night manager. Although Waldrip was convicted, the trial court granted his motion for a new trial. He was released on bond pending the retrial, according to court documents.
The retrial was set for April 15, 1991.
Two days before the retrial, and sometime between 10:30 p.m. and midnight on Saturday, April 13, 1991, the trio of father-son, Tommy Lee and John Mark Waldrip, and Howard Livingston, the senior Waldrips brother-in-law, saw Evans on Highway 9. They ran his truck off the road, and shot him in the face and neck with birdshot, records show. Evans survived the shooting. He was then taken to a barn off Hugh Stowers Road in Dawson County and beaten to death with a blackjack. He was buried in a shallow grave in Gilmer County and his nearly new pickup truck set on fire.
Family members receivedword of the boards decisionby cell phone before they reached home in Dawson County from the clemency hearing in Atlanta.
It was as if they already had their minds made up before we even got to speak, Angela DeCoursey, Keith Evans sister, said. How could they make up their minds so fast? Whats the point of having a justice system, judges, juries, appeals courts, if a board that has no law experience can just overturn all their decisions? We are shocked beyond words.
Dawson County Sheriff Billy Carlisle, who investigated the case as a young deputy, agrees.
Im shocked and disappointed, he said. Its discouraging, to be honest with you. ... The justice system was set up to give everyone a fair and equal trial, and when youre found guilty, then that sentence should be carried out.
The jury and judge sat there and listened to all the evidence and made their decision based on that evidence, and thats why they found him guilty. For a board to come in 23 years later and change it, just isnt right.
As the board remains silent on reasons for its decision--which required a simple majority, three out of five members--speculation grows.
Two NBC news affiliates reported that lawyers for Waldrip argued he was vulnerable to a cruel and excruciating death because of a new Georgia law that keeps secret the source of the states lethal injection drugs and details about its execution team.
But federal judge William OKelley disagreed, writing that even if Waldrip had the information, he would not be able to use that information to establish a substantial risk of significant pain.
Executions by lethal injection came under scrutiny after a botched execution in Oklahoma that left an inmate partially conscious and in pain during the procedure.Since then, Georgia successfully executed one man, Marcus Wellons, in June.
DeCoursey, on the other hand, believes the board may have lessened the sentence for Waldrip since his accomplices received life in prison.
The three men were tried separately, records show. Evans family attended every trial and appeal for 23 years -- the length of Keith Evans life.
I think its because Tommy Waldrips jury was better, she said. They were interested and asked lots of questions. When John Waldrip was tried, it was like they just wanted their paycheck and to get out of there. One older man slept through the whole thing.
If we had been in our right minds, we would have asked for a retrial (of John Waldrip). But we were still in shock. We werent thinking straight.
The elder Waldrip was arrested two days after Evans went missing on April 13, 1991, and later confessed to shooting and beating the victim and burning his truck. He then led authorities to Evans body in Gilmer County, then to the shotgun used in the crimes. The next day, Waldrip gave a conflicting statement, one in which he contended his son, John Mark, and Livingston murdered the victim and burned his truck, and that he was merely a bystander. He then gave a third statement in which he related that all three participated in the crimes, according to public records.
Dawson County District Attorney Lee Darragh, who was the chief assistant district attorney at the time, said his office is profoundly disappointed.
For over 20 years (we) have fought hard to maintain the conviction and death sentence in this case only to have a board of five change the sentence in one fell swoop with little deliberation, Darragh said. While Waldrip will never taste freedom with this new sentence, it represents, at best, incomplete justice. Keith Evans was a courageous young man who was cowardly put to death all for doing the right thing in standing for justice himself. It is a sad time indeed for his family, with whom are my thoughts and prayers.
House Rep. Kevin Tanner, a friend of the Evans family, echoed Darraghs comments.
I am extremely disappointed in the decision by the board, he said. It is unfortunate that 20-plus years of work thats been done by investigators and prosecutors involved in this case to have successfully investigated and convicted Tommy Lee which were upheld all these years, to be undone in such a short period of time; my heart goes out to the family whove had to relive the experience so many times over, and Im sorry that they were not able to receive a sense of closure in this part of the case.
State and federal courts and the U.S. Supreme Court ruled the same on Waldrips multiple appeals to overturn his sentence: to deny. Appeals went to the Georgia Supreme Court three times and to the U.S. Supreme Court three times during a 20-plus year process.
AT WHAT COST?
Costs to taxpayers to incarcerate Waldrip for 23 years are $917,125, or $39,857 per year, based on 2012 figures from the Georgia Department of Corrections.
Legal fees for the 1994 trial alone that resulted in Waldrips death sentence were $102,098.
I have no way to guesstimate legal fees (for the appeals process), said Lauren Kane, public affairs officer with Georgia Attorney General Sam Olens office.
The pardons board last Thursday heard pleas for mercy from Waldrips lawyers, relatives and friends, and then from prosecutors and members of the Evans family and friends who wanted the execution carried out, including one of Keith Evans best friends, Dawn Pruett. Pruett graduated from Dawson County High School with Evans in 1985.
Everyone loved Keith and Keith loved everyone, Pruett wrote in a letter she read to the parole board. Keith was special to so many of us. He looked after us, and it was nothing for him to show up at school with a fresh batch of his signature chocolate oatmeal cookies he made for our group.
For Pruetts 16thbirthday, Evans gave her a crystal jewelry box.
It sits on my dresser today to always remind me of my dear friend, she wrote.I appeal to you that justice be served; that Tommy Lee Waldrip finally be punished for the death of a son, grandson, nephew, brother and my friend. Nothing will ever take away the pain this family has suffered, but this will be somewhat of a closure for all of us.
DCHS 1985 graduates Milan Wallace and Eugene Burt were also Evans friend.
Theres nothing thats right about it (the boards decision), Wallace said. There is no justice. He never did anything to anybody. Ive got a real problem with it.
Im not happy with the boards decision, not after all the family has gone through for this long, stopping it (the execution) at the last minute, he said. We grew up together. We graduated together. My wife (Jennifer Burt) is his first cousin. Keith loved to be around people. He enjoyed life. We were always joking around. Keith was such a good person. He didnt deserve what happened to him.
Prior to his murder, Keith Evans shared details of the robbery with his father.
Keith told me came from downstairs (at the store) to a little glass window when he saw a man standing there. He thought he wanted to cash a check, Evans said. John (Waldrip) had a coat on, and he had a bag. He came up real close to the glass and told Keith to fill up the bag and not to touch that button (an alarm). Then he showed Keith the gun he had inside his coat.
As instructed, Evans filled the bag.
Keith told me John didnt know there was a bunch more money in the safe, the elder Evans said. He just grabbed the bag and ran, and Keith punched the button.
Evans said his son didnt like guns.
He never liked it when I went hunting and killed a deer, Evans said. I offered to buy him a gun because he carried a lot of money to the night deposit, but he said, No, daddy, I dont want a gun. I dont like guns. Keith wasnt afraid of anything.
Family members said Waldrip got away with $2,000.