JACKSON – On Wednesday night, just off I-75’s Exit 201, truckers dimmed their lights and tried to rest in their cabs outside the Pilot gas station. At the McDonald’s next door, workers served hot burgers to warm the bodies of customers who came in from the freezing cold. People drove by the prison on the other side of the road, oblivious, to be sure, that Ray “Jeff’ Cromartie was about to die.
Two hundred miles away, in Birmingham, Ala., Eric Major couldn’t stop thinking of Cromartie. The men were stepbrothers, but their lives had long ago diverged: Major ended up a state representative in Alabama for eight years, Cromartie on Georgia’s death row.
Cromartie had been sentenced to die for the 1994 murder of 50-year-old store clerk Richard Slysz in South Georgia. Cromartie admitted taking part in the robbery that resulted in the murder but insisted it was the co-defendant who testified against him who pulled the trigger. All the courts sided with the district attorney's office in Thomas County, near the Florida border, saying the trial evidence showed Cromartie was the killer.
Major believed his stepbrother, but he could do nothing with that belief Wednesday night. He drove around Birmingham aimlessly, unsure what to do with himself.
At 10:30 p.m. or so, six guards brought Cromartie into the death chamber hidden deep on the sprawling campus of the Georgia Diagnostic and Classification Prison. Cromartie’s eyes were wide, unblinking. The 52-year-old inmate said nothing as he was strapped to the gurney, his fingers taped down to the arm rests.
He grimaced as the first needle stuck the crease in his elbow. The three wooden pews in the building were still mostly empty, the majority of witnesses waiting to be allowed to enter.
Major, a year younger than his stepbrother, had several reasons for being in Birmingham, not here to witness Cromartie die.
First, Cromartie had asked him — and the rest of the family — not to come. He didn't want to put them through seeing him killed by the state. Major had always felt guilt for doing well in life while his stepbrother sat in prison. He and Cromartie went in different directions after high school. Major moved to Alabama to live with his mother, who stressed education. Cromartie didn't have the same opportunities or encouragement when he ended up in Thomasville, Major said. Many years later, Major promised Cromartie he would do what he could to help people like him. On the night of his stepbrother's execution, Major had an early evening class at law school.
A convoy of Department of Corrections vans carried the witnesses to the death house, where two men in riot gear held rifles and stood guard, listing slightly in the cold.
District Attorney Brad Shealy wore a dark suit with shining cuff links and waited in his van to keep warm. Shealy had spent recent weeks lobbying against Cromartie's requests for new DNA testing of evidence in the case, which Cromartie claimed could've proven he wasn't the shooter. Cromartie placed the blame on co-defendant Corey Clark, who cooperated with the state and, thus, got lesser charges. He was later released from prison. Clark testified it was Cromartie who shot the clerk twice in the head at Junior Food Store that early morning in Thomasville. Shealy had successfully argued the DNA testing was unlikely to change the outcome of the case, because even the absence of Cromartie's DNA on evidence wouldn't mean he was not the shooter.
When Shealy and other witnesses walked into the death house, they saw Cromartie on the gurney, his body mostly covered in a white sheet. The inmate and witnesses were separated by glass. The gurney was tilted forward, so Cromartie could look to the gallery and the witnesses could see his face.
In Alabama, Major couldn’t stop thinking about what must be happening. He saw it as a grave injustice that Georgia wouldn’t agree to test the DNA. What, he wondered, would the harm be? Who, he wondered, was served by not testing it?
Major knew the victim’s daughter, Elizabeth Legette, had publicly supported the testing because she wanted to be sure he’d personally shot her father. On Tuesday she said: “People in power have refused to listen to what I had to say.”
Warden Benjamin Ford asked Cromartie if he had any final words.
“No,” Cromartie said, shaking his head, looking anxious.
Cromartie mouthed something to himself, glancing upward.
What about a final prayer?
A pastor asked God to grant Cromartie “peace beyond all understanding.”
Then the pentobarbital started flowing.
No one said anything.
An official put a piece of candy or cough drop in his mouth, the wrapper crunching in the quiet. The witnesses, who appeared to be mostly officials and prison employees, stared at Cromartie, who stared past them.
A guard closed her eyes.
Major thought about Thad Lucas, the other co-defendant, who’d been the getaway driver but waited in the car behind the store and didn’t see the shooting. Lucas, who was Cromartie’s half brother, had always said he didn’t know who shot the clerk. But two days before Cromartie was set to die, he’d released an affidavit saying he’d kept a secret for 25 years: right after the murders, Lucas overheard Clark confess to the murder.
The courts said the evidence still pointed to Cromartie, largely because witness testimony had connected him and him alone to a nearly identical store robbery where a clerk was shot in the head and survived.
But Lucas’ affidavit only made Major more convinced his stepbrother wasn’t a killer.
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Cromartie’s chest heaved. His nostrils flared for air. He pulled his head back, eyes up, up, up to the ceiling panel directly above him.
When he yawned and closed his eyes, everyone in the gallery kept their eyes open, fixed on him. He didn’t seem to be moving. A doctor standing behind kept rocking back and forth on his heels, staring at Cromartie, waiting.
Finally, at 10:59 p.m. two other doctors walked up to Cromartie. One of the men peeled back the inmate’s eyelids and looked into his eyes. Both doctors placed stethoscopes to Cromartie’s chest and listened. They looked at each other and nodded — Yes, no heartbeat.
A guard pulled a curtain closed, his hand casting a shadow through the beige cloth.
Major heard the news from his stepbrother’s lawyers. He told them he still wanted the DNA tested, and he was resolved to see it done even if he had to pay for the tests himself. The lawyers said they’d see if it was possible.
In a phone interview later in the night, Major sounded frustrated and tired. He said his faith in the justice system died with his stepbrother. But Major took comfort in knowing Cromartie was “right with God.” Major looked forward to holding his law degree.
“We can’t help Jeff now,” he said. “All we can do is try to help future Jeffs.”
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Thomasville Times-Enterprise reporter Erik Yabor, who was chosen to be the first witness allowed in the room, contributed to this article.