Inmate awaits execution as lawyers plead for mercy, citing childhood

Marion Wilson

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Marion Wilson

As death penalty cases go, Marion Wilson’s is basically average.

With his execution scheduled for 7 p.m. Thursday, Wilson’s lawyers aren’t arguing he’s totally innocent. They haven’t called him a model inmate. He has no famous friends begging for mercy. He has no one forcefully speaking up for him at all. Death penalty abolitionists no doubt will argue the state shouldn’t kill Wilson for the same moral reasons they believe the state shouldn’t kill anyone.

But this is the type of death penalty case that, like most, gets little attention or sympathy while lawyers and lawyers alone toil to save an inmate’s life. Wilson’s attorneys’ fight comes to a head Wednesday morning as the Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles meets to consider halting his execution.

Wilson was convicted in Baldwin County of murder — along with co-defendant Robert Butts — in the 1996 shooting death of Donovan Parks, 24, a corrections officer who wanted to become a counselor for inmates.

Wilson and Butts, who was executed last year, spotted Parks at a Milledgeville Walmart and asked for a ride while he was buying cat food. Parks, who knew Butts from working with him at Burger King, had just come from Bible study. Wilson and Butts were members of the Folk street gang. Minutes after Parks agreed to give them a lift, he was pulled from his car, shot in the head with a sawed-off shotgun, and left for dead in the road.

Prosecutors said the motive was elevated stature in the gang.

In their clemency petition, Wilson’s attorneys argued there is no evidence Wilson was the trigger man, or that he knew Butts was going to shoot Parks. The attorneys said Wilson thought Butts was likely going to rob Parks. The petition points out the district attorney had offered Wilson a sentence of life with the possibility of parole before his 1997 trial. The filing also seeks to engender empathy for Wilson because of his childhood abuse and traumas.

UPDATE: Marion Wilson executed Thursday, June 20

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In a response filed Monday, the DA’s office said Wilson needs to die. The filing noted that Georgia law doesn’t require a person to physically kill someone to be guilty of murder. Helping in a murder is enough.

The DA’s filing also dismissed other arguments, including Wilson’s claims that Parks’ necktie should be tested for DNA. Someone pulled the tie so tight during the murder that it had to be cut off Parks’ body. But Baldwin County DA Stephen Bradley argued in the filing that even if Wilson’s DNA wasn’t on the tie, that wouldn’t mean much because Wilson was wearing gloves.

Christopher Parks, who was 18 when his brother was murdered, said he's angry he has to appear at the hearing to argue for the death sentence two decades later. In all these years, he hasn't felt like Donovan got justice, because the death sentences were delayed through dragging appeals, as all death sentences in this country are. Even after Butts was executed, Christopher Parks still felt justice would be incomplete until Wilson was dead too.

As Parks sees it, his brother died for being a nice person, for giving a ride to two people who claimed they were stranded. For his generosity, he was killed in minutes. Why, the brother wonders, has Wilson been allowed to live 23 more years?

“This guy has had (almost) 12.5 million minutes to fight for his life,” Parks told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “On June 19th, it will be 8,483 days since they murdered my brother.”

Nevertheless, Wilson’s attorneys have requested that he get one more week so the parole board can fully consider their petition, which in large part is dedicated to describing Wilson’s childhood.

He was born July 29, 1976, in Brunswick to Charlene Cox, who worked as a prostitute. His father was absent.

Wilson’s mother didn’t realize she was pregnant until four or five months in, and she had been drinking and using drugs the whole time. Because of this and/or other traumas he suffered, Wilson’s lawyers say he has brain impairments that affect his judgment.

Wilson’s mother gave him an “almost nomadic” childhood, bouncing around southeast Georgia as she dated abusive men and neglected her son, the attorneys argue. (Cox didn’t respond to a message seeking comment, and her son’s attorneys declined to facilitate an interview with any relatives.)

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The mother’s boyfriends exposed Wilson to criminality at a young age, his lawyers say. And he lived in disgusting conditions. In one home, they rarely had water, so Cox’s boyfriend urinated in soda and milk bottles and left them around the house, contributing to a stench people remembered decades later. The next boyfriend let friends smoke crack cocaine and make out in front of the boy, who would often run away to try to find food. Others beat Wilson.

Wilson sought refuge in the streets, which led to crime. He ended up “chief enforcer” for his set of the Folk gang, according to an interview he gave to investigators.

During a hearing in which Wilson was fighting his sentence, one juror said she would not have voted for the death penalty if she’d known about Wilson’s childhood and brain issues. A judge heard that juror’s testimony and declined to intervene in the case.

Christopher Parks said information about Wilson’s past “absolutely does not change” his feelings.

He is also unswayed by defense attorneys’ arguments questioning who yanked the necktie, who pulled the trigger, or why the trial prosecutor told Butts’ jury and Wilson’s jury different versions of who fired the gunshot into Donovan Parks’ head. Christopher Parks sees both Wilson and Butts as the killers.

Wilson is likely to meet the same fate as Butts. He died from a lethal dose of pentobarbital on May 4, 2018, while Christopher Parks and other members of the victim’s family watched inside the death house at the Georgia Diagnostic and Classification Prison in Jackson.

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As of Tuesday afternoon, no one had contacted the State Board of Pardons and Paroles to lobby for Wilson, except his lawyers, according to board records. In contrast, last month, some two dozen people contacted the parole board about Scotty Morrow, a former Gainesville resident who was executed for killing two women in 1994.

The board denied Morrow’s clemency request despite pleas for mercy from supporters who said Morrow had reformed and shown himself to be a good man, a caring grandfather of four, and a model inmate.

The denial wasn’t surprising.

Morrow was against the same odds that now stare down Wilson. Since the death penalty was reinstated in the U.S. in 1976, the Georgia parole board has only spared the lives of 11 condemned inmates.