Efforts by local House Rep. Kevin Tanner and the Dawson News & Advertiser to require greater transparency from the state Board of Pardons and Paroles proved successful as House Bill 71 received final passage last week in the state Senate.
Senators voted 55-0 in favor of the new bill, which now goes to Gov. Nathan Deal for consideration.
Tanners original bill, however, was significantly weakened in the Senate, but still provides the first-of-its-kind changes.
Im not satisfied with it, Tanner said Friday. But at the end of the day, we made a major step.
Tanner said he is unhappy that the boards actions when granting or denying pardons, paroles or clemency, and the information it uses to make those decisions, will remain confidential state secrets.
My original bill, that passed the House with overwhelming support, would have made that information available to the public and the press, he said. Now, unless they consider that information to be in the publics best interest, they are not required by law to release any details or how they voted.
Sen. Steve Gooch, who represents District 51, which includes Dawson County, asked Sen. Jessie Stone, of Augusta, to carry the bill in the Senate. Gooch also serves as the Senates majority whip.
I think its a good bill, Gooch said. So much attention was given to the bill from the press people were watching and asking questions.
Sen. Stone is an attorney and said he worked with the lieutenant governors office before presenting a substitute bill to the Senate.
I think rather than jumping from having things be a state secret to complete disclosure, we need to see how this works using the standard and guidelines weve set for the board, Stone said. If its abused and information is not being released, we need to review it again.
Stone voiced concerns about a chilling effect on people involved in a case, such as pastors or prominent members of the community.
If they think their information and participation could be public, they may not want to be involved. he said.
Stone also said he was unaware of the background of the bill, and that his area of law does not include pardons and paroles or clemency.
CHANGES IN THE LAW
For the first time, the board is required, by law, to notify victims and their families 20 days in advance whenever it considers making a final decision to grant parole for a serious offense.
But, this notification will happen only if the victim or a family member provides the board with their current mail or email address and phone number, according to amended OCGA 17-17-13, lines 25-29.
This is a positive step, Tanner said. They will know ahead of time, in every case, if the board is considering a pardon.
Additionally, for the first time, the board is also required to give at least 30 days advance written notice to the district attorney whenever it considers making a final decision on a pardon for a serious offense, according to amended OCGA 42-9-43, (c)(1).
Serious offenses include: aggravated assault, rape, stalking, cruelty to children, child molestation, incest, exploitation and intimidation of disabled persons or the elder, sodomy, burglary, home invasion, trafficking in cocaine, ecstasy, illegal or controlled drugs, sexual trafficking, participating in gang activity, among others.
By law, the board is also required to make information it used in making its decision open for public inspection.
A written decision to include the boards findings and reflect the boards consideration of the evidence offered that supports (its) decision, will be made available for public inspection, according to Section 16-13-43, 3(A) of the amended law.
Inspiration for the new bill came in July 2014, after the pardons board refused requests of the Dawson News & Advertiser to release details of why it granted clemency to convicted murderer Tommy Lee Waldrip. Waldrip was convicted in 1994 of the brutal beating and shooting death of Dawson County resident Keith Evans.
The pardons board also refused to release those details to 156 members of the Georgia Sheriffs Association and the Dawson County Board of Commissioners.
"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, Tanner said.
Waldrip appealed his conviction three times to the Georgia State Supreme Court and three times to the United States Supreme Court. All appeals were turned down, according to court documents.
Dawson County Sheriff Billy Carlisle said the pardons boards decision to not release details was wrong.
The jury and judge sat there and listened to all the evidence and made their decision on that evidence, Carlisle said in September 2014. And thats why they found him (Waldrip) guilty.
For a board to come in 23 years later and change it, just isnt right.
Tanner added that he will be carefully watching the pardons boards future actions.
If they start releasing information on their own, Ill be OK with that, but if I see theyre going down the same path theyve been on, I will bring additional legislation in the future.