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Pardons board secret votes may change
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Two local legislators plan to join forces in the 2015 legislative session in an effort to possibly change a 71-year-old Georgia law that allows the Georgia Pardons and Paroles board to operate in complete secrecy.

Weve got the Senate research office already working on it, Sen. Steve Gooch (R-51) said. Were looking at current laws and the Constitution to help us understand what parameters and responsibilities are of that board.

Gooch noted the pardons board is part of the states executive branch and operates under different rules than the judicial branch, for example.

There are things I wasnt even aware of, he said, but our goal is to create transparency. When they make a decision that has a significant impact on families across the state, and here in Dawson, we need an explanation.

Gooch was referring to the boards decision in July to commute the death sentence of Tommy Lee Waldrip to life in prison. Waldrip had been on Georgias death row more than 20 years after he and two others were convicted in the 1991 beating and shooting death of Dawson County resident Keith Evans, 23.

The pardons board refused to release details of its decision to the family, this newspaper, the Dawson County Board of Commissioners, or the Georgia Sheriffs Association, all of whom made formal requests.

The board effectively overturned 20 years of court decisions in the Waldrip case with less than two hours of deliberation, records show.

The judicial system worked, the courts did their job, the district attorney, the jury sentenced Waldrip to death, and after 20 years a group of men overturns those decision with no explanation, it victimizes the family, Gooch said.

Gooch and House Rep. Kevin Tanner (R-9) said they plan to each introduce legislation in the Senate and House, respectively, aimed at creating transparency for the pardons board.

Were trying to develop a set of parameters to work with, Tanner said. The pardons and parole board has a difficult job, and we dont want to make it more difficult. I wouldnt propose to open up everything they do, however, I do think there needs to be a written explanation available to the public, the media, and families of why a decision was rendered a certain way. I dont think it will require a constitutional amendment.

The pardons and paroles board is under increasing scrutiny after a series of stories in this newspaper focused on its refusal to declassify information in commuting Waldrips death sentence, and a recent series in the Atlanta Journal Constitution that revealed the board restored the gun rights of more than 1,400 felons from 2008-13, a spike from 6 percent to 31 percent. It did so without oversight or explanation to victims or families.

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

Its wonderful news that they (Sen. Gooch and Rep. Tanner) are working together on this, DeCoursey said. Even if it doesnt help us, at least it will help someone else. Its just great.

Dawson County Attorney Joey Homans has drafted a letter to Gov. Deal, Attorney General Sam Olens, House Speaker David Ralston and Lieutenant Governor Casey Cagle.

The letter is in response to the pardons boards decision to not release details to the Dawson County Board of Commissioners after the board unanimously passed a resolution asking for them on Aug. 7.

The letter states in part:

. . . If the Board of Pardons and Paroles refuses to provide the information requested with the annual report, then the Board of Commissioners of Dawson County seek changes to current law that exempts the board from releasing the information requested . . ..