After 70 years of operating in the darkness of secrecy, the Georgia Pardons and Paroles Board may be forced to step into the sunshine.
A bill that would dramatically change the way Georgia's most secretive government agency operates passed the Georgia House of Representatives last week with overwhelming support.
"Since the Keith Evans murder case and the subsequent articles in the Dawson News & Advertiser that showed a complete lack of transparency and secrecy at the board there has been a lot of public support for this bill, said House Rep. Kevin Tanner (R-Dawsonville), who sponsored the legislation.
Of 180 House Representatives, 162 voted yes, eight said no, eight abstained and two did not vote.
House Bill 71 would require records of the Georgia Pardons and Paroles Board to be open for public inspection, for the first time in 70 years, with few exceptions.
"This is a major piece of legislation, a major shift in policy," Tanner said. "This has been a long time coming."
Under current Georgia law, all action taken by the pardons and paroles board, including how its five-member board votes on denying or granting clemency to death row inmates or granting paroles, is considered a confidential state secret.
This newspaper launched an investigation into the actions of the board after it granted clemency July 9, 2014 to convicted murderer Tommy Lee Waldrip without releasing details of its decision to Evans family, elected officials, members of the news media, or the Georgia Sheriffs Association, all of whom requested those details.
THE MURDER OF DCHS GRAD KEITH EVANS
Evans, who graduated from Dawson County High School in 1986, was the only eye witness to come forward to testify against Tommy Lee Waldrip, at his 1990 trial, for robbing at gunpoint the convenience store in Cumming, where Evans worked as a night manager. Although Waldrip was convicted in the robbery, the trial court granted his attorney's motion for a new trial. Waldrip was released on bond pending the retrial, according to court documents.
The retrial was set for April 15, 1991.
On Saturday, two days before the retrial, and sometime between 10:30 p.m. and midnight, Evans was on his way home from work on Highway 9. Waldrip and two other men ran Evans' truck off the road and shot him in the face with bird shot. The gunshots did not kill him, court documents showed.
Evans then was driven to a barn off Hugh Stowers Roadand 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. Evans was 23-years-old.
Waldrip was sentenced to die by lethal injection, and two others were sentenced to life in prison.
After serving 20 years on Georgias death row, Waldrips execution was scheduled for July 10, 2014.
One day before the execution, the Georgia Pardons and Paroles Board granted clemency to Waldrip. The board made its decision so fast, the Evans family hadnt arrived home to Dawsonville from Atlanta, where they had attended Waldrips clemency hearing.
It was like they already had their minds made up, Keith Evans sister, Angela DeCoursey, said at the time. "What's 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 belief."
Cleve Evans, father of Keith Evans, said Monday his family has suffered enormously.
"Having access to information would help, somewhat, to bring closure for families," Evans said. "But what I'd like is for it to be retroactive, so that my family can find out why they made the decisions they did."
PROVISIONS IN THE HOUSE BILL
If approved by the Senate and signed into law by Gov. Nathan Deal, the pardons and pardons board would be required when granting a pardon or parole to:
1. Include the board's findings that reflect its consideration of the evidence offered that supports the board's decision
2. Indicate each board member's vote on the decision, and
3. Be available for public inspection
"Up until now, the board's decisions have been hidden behind a veil of secrecy," Rep. Tanner said. "Keith Evans and his mother and father and two sisters, when they asked the board 'why', didn't get any answers. Victims' families deserve to have answers.
LOCAL OFFICIALS TOOK UP THE CASE
Dawson County Sheriff Billy Carlisle, Wiley Griffin, president of the Georgia Sheriffs Association, and Mike Berg, chair of the Dawson County Board of Commissioners, were approached by the Dawson News & Advertiser and asked if they would also request information from the pardons board about its decision in Waldrips case.
All three agreed.
And all three were told no in a two-sentence form letter issued by the pardons board in September 2014.
The jury and judge sat there and listened to all the evidence and made their decision based on that evidence, Sheriff Carlisle said at the time. And thats why they found him (Waldrip) guilty.
For a board to come in 23 years later and change it, just isnt right.
Dawson County District Attorney Lee Darragh, who prosecuted the Waldrip case more than 20 years ago, said Tanners legislation will help victims families.
(We) are grateful for Rep. Tanners sponsorship and work on this bill which will increase transparency in the clemency process in particular, Darragh said. Im confident in Senate passage and in the bill becoming law, to help families of victims throughout our state in their understanding of the process and in great participation in the process.
Kathy Strayhorn, a victim's advocate in Darraghs office for 16 years and a representative for Keith Evans family, spoke during a House committee hearing about the dangers of the pardons board secrecy.
She referred specially to a case involving a 6-year-old girl who was sexually abused.
"Part of the reason we end up in court in child sex cases is because of secrets," she said. "Children are told by the molester, 'Keep this a secret. Don't tell anyone.'
"Then, the (Georgia Pardons) board makes a decision to pardon a sex offender, and the victim, the family, no one is told anything. It's all a big secret.
"If that's how we do justice, shame on us."
House Bill 71 has moved to the Senate Judiciary Non-Civil Committee. which has jurisdiction over Georgia's criminal laws and procedures, parole and pardons, sentencing and drug enforcement. On March 4, the bill was read into the Senate record and is being considered.
Sen. Steve Gooch (District 51) represents Dawson County.
"I don't see any real obstacles," Gooch said. "The lieutenant governor (Casey Cagle) supports it."
To share your opinion, you may contact Sen. Gooch at 404-656-9221 or firstname.lastname@example.org.