Ray Cromartie executed for 1994 murder of South Georgia store clerk

Undated photo of Georgia death row inmate Ray Jefferson Cromartie. The 52-year-old Cromartie is scheduled to be executed by lethal injection on Nov. 13, 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

Credit: Georgia Department of Corrections via AP

Credit: Georgia Department of Corrections via AP

Undated photo of Georgia death row inmate Ray Jefferson Cromartie. The 52-year-old Cromartie is scheduled to be executed by lethal injection on Nov. 13, 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 was executed Wednesday at 10:59 p.m. at the Georgia Diagnostic and Classification Prison amid uncertainty and contention.

The 52-year-old had been sentenced to die for the 1994 murder of a store clerk in South Georgia, a crime Cromartie always insisted he hadn’t committed. His efforts to get new DNA testing in the case failed, even though the victim’s daughter supported it.

Cromartie said “no,” when asked if he would like to make a final statement. But he appeared to mouth something indecipherable to himself while staring upward to the ceiling in the death chamber.

MORE: A Georgia inmate's final moments and his stepbrother's loss

The last word he spoke aloud was “yes,” when asked if he wanted a prayer. The pastor asked God to grant him “peace beyond all understanding.”

Cromartie was strapped to a gurney with his arms splayed to the side, his fingers taped down.

The drug pentobarbitol began flowing at about 10:39 p.m. After a few minutes, Cromartie, who was staring past the witnesses, began to breathe heavily. His nostrils flared and his chest heaved under a white sheet that covered his body.

As his breathing became more labored, he leaned back his head, fixed his eyes directly on the ceiling, and puckered his lips. He then yawned and closed his eyes.

After a few minutes, Cromartie didn’t seem to be moving at all. But the doctor standing behind him continued to stare at his chest and rocked back and forth on his heels.

The room was silent but for people clearing their throats occasionally until two doctors came in and pronounced him dead.

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On Monday, one of Cromartie's co-defendants, Thad Lucas, released an affidavit saying he'd overheard their other co-defendant, Corey Clark, confess to being the shooter. Lucas, who was the getaway driver in the robbery in Thomasville, did not mention Clark's alleged confession at trial or in a recent interview.

Lucas said in the affidavit that he originally didn’t think telling the truth would do any good. State officials argued his statement changes nothing, because Lucas acknowledges he didn’t see the shooting and, thus, can’t know who killed 50-year-old Richard Slysz.

And the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta, in a late afternoon ruling Wednesday that rejected Cromartie’s request for a stay of execution, disagreed with Cromartie’s lawyers’ contention that Lucas’ recent statement shows their client is innocent of malice murder and his case should be reopened.

A three-judge panel of the 11th Circuit noted that Cromartie was convicted of shooting a different store clerk three days before Slysz was killed. Lucas also testified at trial that Cromartie picked out which store to rob in the Slysz killing.

Given this, the court said, Cromartie had failed to present new evidence compelling enough to call into question the outcome of the trial.

Cromartie’s fate was sealed when the U.S. Supreme Court, in a ruling Wednesday at roughly 10:15 p.m., also denied his request for a stay.

Victim Says The Unexpected

Slysz’s daughter, Elizabeth Legette, supported Cromartie’s requests for new DNA testing. Cromartie’s attorneys said the testing — on shell casings and clothing — could prove it was Clark who shot the clerk, not Cromartie. At trial, Clark testified that Cromartie fired the gun.

Courts one by one denied Cromartie’s DNA testing request, upsetting the victim’s daughter.

“In the course of the past few months, I have not been treated with fairness, dignity, or respect, and people in power have refused to listen to what I had to say,” Legette wrote in a statement released Tuesday. “I believe this was, in part, because I was not saying what I was expected to say as a victim.”

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Cromartie’s attorney Shawn Nolan issued his own sharply worded statement after his client was dead:

"It is so sad and frankly outrageous that the state of Georgia executed Ray Cromartie tonight after repeatedly denying his requests for DNA testing that would have proven he did not kill Richard Slysz. In this day and age, where DNA testing is routine, it is shocking that Georgia decided to end this man’s life without allowing us, his attorneys, access to the materials to do these simple tests. The victim’s daughter repeatedly asked that the state conduct this testing. The people of Georgia, and those in this country who believe in fairness, justice and compassion, deserve better."

Cromartie Comforted His Kin

After 25 years of failed court fights, Cromartie seemed resigned in recent visits with family.

Stepbrother Eric Major had talked to him through a metal screen at the prison that houses the execution chamber.

“He was comforting us,” Major told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “He was never a very emotional person, but he was always a caring person.”

Major didn’t need to square the image of the convicted murderer as a caring person, because he never believed his stepbrother was guilty.

The Georgia Diagnostic and Classification Prison in Jackson, which houses the state’s execution chamber. (Ben Gray/ AJC file photo)

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The brothers grew up mostly around Houston, Texas, where they had little supervision at home. “We kind of were raising ourselves,” Major said.

Cromartie seemed to Major like an average-enough kid with a job at McDonald’s and a love for music. Cromartie wanted to be like their neighbor, an engineer, but Major doesn’t think it was so much the profession Cromartie wanted to emulate, just the act of wearing a suit to work.

The stepbrothers got into trouble here and there before Major’s mother brought him to live with her in Alabama. At the mother’s urging, Major went to college.

Cromartie, meanwhile, joined the Army and, after leaving the service, ended up in Thomasville, his mom’s hometown near the Florida border. Major stayed in Alabama, where he would later become a state representative.

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As the execution neared, Major thought of how his path had diverged from his stepbrother’s. “But for the grace of God, I would be Jeff,” he said.

Major decided not to attend the execution. Cromartie had asked relatives not to come so they wouldn’t have to endure it.

Crime That Turned Fatal

Cromartie didn’t deny involvement in the robbery attempt at Junior Food Store.

Cromartie and Clark were driven to the store by Lucas, who is Cromartie’s half-brother. Cromartie had convinced Lucas to give them a ride to steal some beer, according to Lucas.

Lucas said he waited in the car behind the store while Cromartie and Clark went around to the front. When Cromartie and Clark fled the store, they were toting two 12-packs of Budweiser.

From where the car was parked, Lucas said he couldn’t see inside the store, so he didn’t realize the clerk was shot until later that night, when Clark pulled him aside and said Cromartie had killed the man.

Shortly thereafter, Lucas now claims, he overheard Clark tell someone else he had killed the clerk himself.

In the days to come, Lucas heard police were also accusing Cromartie of shooting a different clerk, Dan Wilson, who’d taken a bullet to the head during a robbery and survived. Police said Cromartie acted alone in Wilson’s shooting.

Lucas, who said he was not close to his half-brother, never asked Cromartie if he was guilty. “Some things you just don’t ask,” Lucas, 47, told the AJC. But in his affidavit, he said he has actually always believed Clark was the shooter.

Lucas and Clark testified at the trial, avoiding the death penalty and murder charges. Lucas and Clark were released from prison in the early 2000s. Clark was recently arrested on a parole violation and hasn’t responded to a request for comment.

» AJC staff writer Bill Rankin contributed to this article.