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Pardons board votes to keep actions secret
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The Georgia Pardons and Paroles Board last week said no to a request to release details of its decision to commute the death sentence of convicted killer Tommy Lee Waldrip.

The five-man, governor-appointed board also said no when asked how its members voted on the commutation.

Its reasoning? Georgia state law -- specifically, 42-9-53. The laws secrecy provisions were signed in 1953 by Gov. Herman Talmadge.

In part, the law states: All information, oral and written, received by board members . . . shall be classified as confidential state secrets until declassified by a resolution of the board passed at a duly constituted session of the board.

It also states, in subsection (d): All hearings required to be held by this chapter shall be public, and the transcript thereof shall be exempt . . ..

However, Steve Hayes, director of public information at the pardons and paroles board, said subsection (d) does not apply to the clemency hearing.

42-9-53(d) is not applicable, Hayes wrote in an email. As the appointment was not a required hearing . . . no transcripts are available as information received during the clemency appointment is not transcribed.

Georgia Press Association Attorney David Hudson, who disagrees with the policy behind the law, addressed the issue.

I dont know what he means by appointment, Hudson said. The board has acted to reverse the results of the judicial process, Hudson said. And since the members are public officials, the citizens should know how they voted and why as a matter of good public policy. Cloaking such an important decision in secrecy creates a lack of confidence with the public and even allows the potential for corruption.

Each board member is paid on average $126,777 in state tax money and serves for a seven-year term.

Cleve Evans, father of murder victim, Keith Evans, said the boards secrecy is wrong.

It makes me think theyre keeping it secret because theyre corrupt, he said. It explains why they dont want to speak up and tell the truth about what they did.

GOVERNOR APPOINTS BOARD

Gov. Nathan Deal appointed two members: James Mills and Braxton Cotton. Gov. Sonny Perdue appointed Terry E. Barnard (chair), James Donald, and Albert Murray.

Barnard and Mills are former state House representatives; Donald is the former commissioner of Georgias Department of Corrections; Murray is the former commissioner of the department of juvenile justice. Cotton worked as a deputy sheriff and detective in the Baldwin County Sheriffs Department, served with the Georgia State Patrol, and was director of the Criminal Justice Coorinating Council.

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.

When my family recently stood before the board, I felt as if they had failed to thoroughly review the case because of the insignificant questions asked of both my family members and the district attorney, Angela DeCoursey, sister of murder victim Keith Evans, said. Since the board is the ultimate authority over local courts, the Georgia Supreme Court, and the U.S. Supreme court, why would they not have a desire to gather the facts prior to making such an important and final decision? And why would they want to to keep their decision secret, not holding themselves accountable to the taxpaying citizens of Georgia?

COLD-BLOODED KILLING

DeCoursey said the younger Waldrip, John Mark, was the one who ran her brothers pickup truck off the road, who shot him in the face and neck with birdshot, and who beat him to death with a blackjack on April 13, 1991.

Evans was scheduled to testify two days later on April 15, 1991, in a retrial of John Waldrip, who had been convicted of robbing at gunpoint a store in Cumming where Evans worked as a night manager.

Evans was the only eyewitness willing to come forward.

The pardons and parole board seemed extremely concerned that Tommy Waldrip was the only one of my brothers three murderers to receive the death penalty, DeCousey said. If this is perhaps the reason they denied the execution, and since the board has the authority to commute a death sentence, why then would they not possess the same authority to issue a death sentence for the two others who were given only life in prison, although equally guilty?

The younger Waldrip and Livingston are serving life in prison. Waldrip was eligible for parole in May; however, the parole board denied his request. He is eligible again in 2022. Livingston is eligible for parole in July 2018. The board may deny parole for one to eight years.

The facts were clearly presented in court 20 years ago for all three involved in my brothers premeditated murder, DeCoursey said. Without a doubt, all three were guilty. Unfortunately, my family was not granted the satisfaction of deciding who would receive the death sentence -- that was for the jury to decide. All three had separate trials; therefore, three independent verdicts were issued.

Throughout the years, she said, Tommys six appeals, at the expense of taxpayer dollars, were denied by the Georgia Supreme Court and the United States Supreme Court.

Georgia has the fifth largest prison population in the nation -- some 200,000 felons in prison or on probation. The prisons have 15,000 employees and an annual budget of $1.2 billion.

Since 1988, Georgia has executed 53 men and stayed the executions of 10, including Tommy Lee Waldrip.Marcus Wellons was executed by lethal injection in June.

Sidebar:

County to ask parole board for answers

WHAT: Dawson County Board of Commissioners will vote on a resolution asking the Georgia Pardons and Paroles Board to release details of why they commuted the death sentence of convicted murderer Tommy Lee Waldrip.

WHEN: Thursday, Aug. 7, at 6 p.m.

WHERE: Dawson County Government Center, second floor, 25 Justice Way, Dawsonville.

Dawson County Attorney Joey Homans responded to a request from the Dawson News & Advertiser, asking the Dawson County Board to draft a resolution requesting the pardons board to release the details.

I will prepare a resolution seeking information about the pardons and paroles boards decision to grant clemency, which will include the impact of the cases on the citizens of Dawson County, Homans said.

It is not yet clear how much Dawson County taxpayers contributed to the three separate trials of Waldrip, his son John Mark Waldrip, and Howard Livingston in the early 1990s.

It is probably upwards of $500,000, but I just dont know yet, Homans said. He said he planned to gather the information from transcripts of budget meetings held at that time.

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