Georgia inmate maintains innocence ahead of execution

Undated photo of Georgia death row inmate Ray Jefferson Cromartie. The 52-year-old Cromartie is scheduled to be executed by lethal injection on Oct. 30, 2019. Cromartie was convicted in the April 1994 slaying of Richard Slysz at a convenience store in Thomasville, just north of the Florida border. CREDIT: Georgia Department of Corrections via AP

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Undated photo of Georgia death row inmate Ray Jefferson Cromartie. The 52-year-old Cromartie is scheduled to be executed by lethal injection on Oct. 30, 2019. Cromartie was convicted in the April 1994 slaying of Richard Slysz at a convenience store in Thomasville, just north of the Florida border. CREDIT: Georgia Department of Corrections via AP

Ray “Jeff” Cromartie met with Georgia officials to ask them to halt his execution. In the private meeting, the 52-year-old told the Board of Pardons and Paroles what he’s long said: he did not kill anyone.

Cromartie, scheduled to be killed Wednesday, didn't deny involvement in the April 1994 convenience store robbery that left a 50-year-old clerk dead, his attorney said, but he maintained it was his co-defendant who fired the gun that early morning in South Georgia.

Cromartie and his attorneys are pleading for new DNA testing on clothing and shell casings they claim could prove Cromartie didn't kill Richard Slysz.

And in a rare move, Cromartie will not submit a formal request for clemency from the board, because the request would require him to ask for his death sentence to be converted to life without parole.

“There is simply too much doubt in his case to ask for this sentence in good faith,” said Shawn Nolan, one of the inmate’s attorneys. “Georgia officials must agree to DNA testing in this case before it’s too late; otherwise, the state risks an unjust execution.”

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The Board of Pardons and Paroles meets Tuesday to weigh Cromartie’s case. The meeting, as is standard, is closed to the public and media.

The execution would be the third in Georgia this year.

The question of who pulled the trigger at Junior Food Store in Thomasville, near the Florida border, has been in dispute for 25 years.

Cromartie says it was co-defendant Corey Clark; Clark testified that it was Cromartie.

Clark and getaway driver, Thad Lucas, both testified for the state, avoiding the death penalty and murder charges. They have been free from prison since the early 2000s. (Clark, who has been wanted for an alleged parole violation since 2015, couldn’t be reached for comment.)

Melven Johnson, who investigated the case for the Thomasville Police Department, believed Clark. Johnson said Clark’s statement that Cromartie was the trigger-man fit with evidence of another robbery three days earlier. In the first robbery, Johnson said he and other detectives confirmed Cromartie was alone when he went into a different store and nearly killed clerk Dan Wilson with a gunshot to the head.

Johnson who has been in law enforcement 44 years, said he has “no doubt whatsoever” that Cromartie pulled the trigger. Johnson said the DNA testing would only serve to prolong the already agonizingly slow run-up to the execution.

“A jury has found him guilty and sentenced him to death,” Johnson told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “I think to give these families and this victim some satisfaction and let them get this off their minds, it needs to happen.”

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But when the lawman said "these families," he didn’t know the deceased victim’s daughter, Elizabeth Legette, is in favor of the DNA testing.

“My father’s death was senseless. Executing another man would also be senseless, especially if he may not have shot my father,” she wrote in the letter, released by Cromartie’s attorneys.

Johnson said later that he didn't know whether any of Slysz's family wants Cromartie to be executed. But he spoke last week with Wilson, the surviving victim, who is now in his early 60s and still fears a stroke because of the damage the bullet caused. “He doesn’t have confidence in the system because he feels like the execution should’ve been taken care of years ago,” Johnson said, adding the execution will help the community heal.

Johnson intends to tell the parole board as much Tuesday. But if the execution goes forward, the 70-year-old isn’t sure he wants to witness it. “I haven’t decided,” he said.

Lucas, the getaway driver, said he still doesn’t know who pulled the trigger. But he told The AJC he remembered the crime.

It was well after midnight when Cromartie, who is Lucas’ brother, came begging for a ride to the store, said Lucas, 47. Cromartie, then 27, said he wanted to steal some beer, according to Lucas, and Lucas agreed. When they walked over to Lucas’ car, there was Clark, waiting for them. Lucas didn’t know Clark, but his brother said the man was riding with them.

At Junior Food Store, Lucas parked behind the store, and Cromartie and Clark climbed out. From where the car was, Lucas said he couldn’t see who went in, and he didn’t even know the clerk had been shot until later that night after the men fled with two 12-packs of Budweiser.

Clark pulled Lucas to the side and said he needed to tell him something. They slipped into a bathroom for privacy. Clark told Lucas that his half-brother had just shot the clerk twice in the head.

“I didn’t know who to believe,” Lucas said this week.

Lucas said he never got a chance to ask his brother if Clark was telling the truth. After hearing Cromartie was also charged with shooting the other clerk, Lucas said he had no idea what to believe, but he didn’t want to approach Cromartie about it: “Some things you just don’t ask.”

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The state Supreme Court in downtown Atlanta is weighing Ray Cromartie’s request to conduct DNA testing on evidence. (credit: Supreme Court of Georgia)

The state Supreme Court in downtown Atlanta is weighing Ray Cromartie’s request to conduct DNA testing on evidence. (credit: Supreme Court of Georgia)

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The state Supreme Court in downtown Atlanta is weighing Ray Cromartie’s request to conduct DNA testing on evidence. (credit: Supreme Court of Georgia)

Lucas and Cromartie didn’t know each other all that well. They shared a father, but they had mostly grown up apart. Cromartie moved to Thomasville, his mother’s hometown, after growing up largely in the Houston, Texas area, according to stepbrother, Eric Major.

Major, a year younger, recalled Cromartie as an average enough kid who liked sports and had a job at McDonald’s. The stepbrothers had little supervision at home, so they got into small-time trouble. At about 18, Major moved to Alabama, where his mother lived. Major’s mother stressed education.

Major became a state representative in Alabama. He only reconnected with his condemned stepbrother in recent years. Major said he’s been upset to see Cromartie have trouble getting the DNA testing approved. The request is now pending a decision by the Georgia Supreme Court.

“The DNA is not just for Jeff — it’s for the people of Georgia,” Major said, because if the DNA proved Cromartie wasn’t the killer, that would mean the killer is free.

No one had told Lucas his brother was scheduled to be executed until he got a message from The AJC.

Asked how he felt about the pending lethal injection, Lucas said: “I don’t condone …,” then went silent for a few beats before he found his next words: “I try not to think too much on that.”