A review of the news that made The Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s front pages through the decades.

If Virgil Delano Presnell’s scheduled execution goes forward, Georgia’s longest-serving Death Row inmate will die having spent the majority of his life behind bars. When he was convicted, Gerald Ford was president and the average cost of a gallon of gas was 59 cents.

Presnell is set to be executed at the Georgia Diagnostic and Classification Prison in Jackson at 7 p.m. May 17, the AJC’s Alexis Stevens reports.

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Georgia sets execution for man convicted of murdering 8-year-old, raping 10-year-old

Credit: WSBTV Videos

Presnell received the death sentence on August 26, 1976, for the May 4 murder of Lori Ann Smith, 8, and rape of Smith’s 10-year-old companion.

On May 5, 1976, Constitution readers learned of the crime in a brief by Ken Willis.

“Cobb Police Lt. Lee Moss said (the girls) were walking home from Richard B. Russell grammar school through a wooded area in south Cobb when a young man in his 20s accosted them,” Willis wrote.

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Presnell, an unemployed 22-year-old living in a northwest Atlanta apartment on Hollywood Road, was taken into custody hours after the attack on the girls.

The Constitution’s Lyn Martin described the surviving girl’s harrowing account of being forced into the trunk of Presnell’s car, being assaulted again and abandoned in a wooded area of Fulton County. In the May 6 article, C.H. Watson, owner of a Bolton Road service station where the girl requested help, expressed anger over the crime.

“She was so scared and hurting so bad. Her dress was bloody,” Watson continued, adding, “It’s awful. It really shook everybody here — up and made them real mad, too. A couple of them got in their cars to see if they could find him, but they didn’t.”

“Presnell Jr. was charged with two counts of kidnapping, one count of murder, one count of rape and one count of aggravated sodomy,” Martin wrote. “About five hours after the two girls were kidnapped Tuesday … the body of Lori Ann Smith was found.”

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“Lori ran in fright when the abductor began sexually assaulting her companion. But the man caught up with Lori and allegedly drowned her in Nickajack Creek,” police told the Constitution.

A little over three months later, readers learned a Cobb jury found Presnell guilty, sentencing him to death for the crimes. The jury’s decision came just two months after the U.S. Supreme Court affirmed Gregg v. Georgia on July 2, ending the nationwide moratorium on the death penalty in effect since 1972.

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During the three-day trial, Presnell’s mother, Lois Cole, testified her son “had very little sex education and that he was a slow learner.”

“Asked by a defense attorney if she knew he had a problem, Cole replied: ‘Not like this, no. I didn’t know he would attack little girls,” reporter Don Hicks wrote in the Aug. 27 edition of the Constitution.

Presnell testified, admitting he waited for the girls and telling them he had a gun. He denied holding Smith underwater at trial, although he’d confessed doing so to police, Hicks reported.

Presnell said he told his story at trial because “I really didn’t care what happened to me.”

ExploreExecution date set for Georgia man convicted of 8-year-old’s murder

The jury didn’t dally in dispensing the ultimate punishment.

“The jury returned just before 6 p.m. after an hour of deliberations on punishment and pronounced three death sentences,” Hicks wrote. “Judge Luther Hames then gave Presnell a 20-year sentence on the kidnapping charge.”

Presnell’s original execution date was set for Nov. 5, 1976, three days after Georgia governor Jimmy Carter would be elected president.


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