Gov. Nathan Deal on Friday signed into law a bill that forces one of Georgias most secretive government agencies to provide the public with some information about its decisions.
An investigation launched last July by the Dawson News & Advertiser revealed that documents used by the Georgia Pardons and Paroles Board to make decisions in cases it handled, including granting clemency, were considered confidential state secrets.
And, that votes taken by its board in making those decisions were also state secrets.
Under the new law, the board is required to provide the public with a written decision in all cases, but the documents it uses and the way its board votes will remain state secrets.
To be able to try a case and then convince a jury that a death penalty is appropriate punishment is not easy to do, Gov. Deal told the crowd gathered at the Georgia Racing Hall of Fame. To have that overturned is disheartening because those who overturned it have not felt the pain associated with why that penalty was imposed in the first place.
Deal, who once served as a district attorney in Dawson County, was referring to the pardons boards decision in July 2014 to not release details to the public after it granted clemency to convicted murderer Tommy Lee Waldrip.
Waldrip received a death sentence for his part in the brutal beating and shooting death of Dawson resident Keith Evans in 1991. At the time, Evans, 23, was working at a convenience store in Cumming and was the only eyewitness to come forward for the state after the store was robbed, according to court records. Evans was murdered on his way home from work, two days before he was scheduled to testify for the state.
Waldrip, now 69, served 20 years on Georgias death row, appealing his conviction six times during that period three times to the Georgia Supreme Court and three times to the U.S. Supreme Court. Records show all appeals were denied.
Rep. Kevin Tanner, who worked the case as a young Dawson County deputy, carried the bill in the House, which passed with overwhelming support.
Having been involved in working the case as a young investigator, knowing the family, attending church with them and seeing the hurt it caused them I felt we brought some sense of hope to future victims families in these cases. Theyll at least have an answer if this occurs in the future. The Evans family was only told the boards decision was a confidential state secret.
CALL FROM PARDONS BOARD
Cleve Evans remembers getting the call when the pardons board granted Waldrip clemency.
They just said, were sorry, and it was like a big slap in the face, he said. I hope no other family has to even come close to going through what we have.
I think Kevin has done a great job, and we appreciate everything he has done.
Evans, however, still lacks confidence in the pardons board.
I really and truly believe there was something crooked about the board and why they didnt release information to us. I believe if any man should have been put to death it was Tommy. We heard the GBI tapes from when they interviewed him and he admitted everything. He planned it. He executed it. He was the oldest one and the leader of the group. He mislead his son and his brother-in-law.
Waldrips son, John Mark Waldrip, 22, in 1991, and the elder Waldrips brother-in-law, Howard Livingston, are serving life sentences for their part in Evans murder.
DETAILS OF NEW LAW
Deal said the new law requires the pardons and paroles board to allow the prosecuting attorney and the district attorney to present evidence on behalf of victims, the family, the community, the jurors, and all those who had a part in arriving at that sentence.
Second, you must allow the families to have greater input into the process, he said, That is particularly important in the pardons portion of this legislation in that it does requires a specific timeframe of notice to a victims family, or the individuals who represent those victims, to be able to have their input before a decision is made
Deal acknowledged Tanner and the new laws importance.
What Kevin tried to do, I think was all together appropriate, he said. So, I compliment Kevin for his diligence and making sure this legislation was passed .
At least they know were fighters and we dont give up, he said.
Georgia is one of only four states whose pardons and paroles board has the sole discretion to grant clemency.
Deal appointed two board members and former Gov. Sonny Perdue appointed three. Since the pardons board decision in the Waldrip case, board member James Donald stepped down and was replaced with Deal appointee Brian Owens.
Members of the pardons and paroles board each earn, on average, $126,000 annually, according to public records.