Death-row inmate Jimmy Meders. (Georgia Department of Corrections)
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Parole board spares life of prisoner hours before scheduled execution

Wednesday was to be Jimmy Meders’ last night sleeping on death row, his home for the past 30 years. In less than 24 hours, he was scheduled for transport to the execution chamber — a nondescript 8-by-12 room located on the grounds of the state prison in Jackson.

Earlier in the evening, however, an announcement from the Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles provided a sliver of hope for the 58-year-old convicted killer. The board, following a full day of testimony, had yet to reach a decision on Meders’ application for clemency.

The delay proved telling. A little before 1 p.m. Thursday, his execution just six hours away, Meders learned the board had commuted his sentence to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

“The board’s critically important role in showing mercy in these rare circumstances cannot be overstated,” said Michael Admirand, one of Meders’ attorneys. “By taking this action, this parole board has made real the intent of the jury to sentence Jimmy to life without parole, and not death.”

Since reinstating the death penalty in 1976, Georgia has granted clemency to only 12 inmates while executing 75 men and one woman. It had been six years since the parole board commuted a death sentence.

“We knew we had an uphill battle,” said Sara Totonchi, head of the Southern Center for Human Rights, which provided the legal resources for Meders’ defense. “But we knew we had a strong case.”

They focused not so much on questions about Meders’ guilt — he maintains he didn’t fire the shots that killed Glynn County convenience store clerk Don Anderson in 1987 — but on what the jurors who sentenced him to death truly wanted. Affidavits from all of the surviving jurors reaffirmed that they had, from the beginning, preferred a lesser sentence.

A note sent from jurors to the judge in Meders’ 1989 trial, included in his clemency application, confirmed their unease.

“If the Jury recommends that the accused be sentenced to life imprisonment, can the Jury recommend that the sentence be carried out without Parole?” they asked.

But it would be four years before the state authorized that sentencing option.

In a statement, the board also cited Meders’ lack of a criminal record prior to Anderson’s murder and his good behavior while in prison as reasons they commuted the death sentence.

Meders was surrounded by family members when he was informed of the parole board’s decision. Department of Corrections spokeswoman Lori Benoit said Meders will either be assigned to a new housing unit at the Jackson prison or transferred to a different facility “appropriate to his security level.”

Benoit also said Meders would not be served what was to be his final meal: 10 chicken strips, two bacon cheeseburgers, french fries, soda, and a pint of vanilla ice cream.

There are now 49 inmates on death row, none with a scheduled execution date. In 2016, the state executed nine prisoners, but the pace has slowed considerably in the years since, with just six executions.

Georgia prosecutors have secured just one death sentence in the past five years. Tiffany Moss was convicted in April 2019 of intentionally starving her 10-year-old stepdaughter to death in 2013 and disposing of her body.

“The death penalty really seems to be falling into disfavor, nationally and in Georgia,” said Marietta criminal defense attorney Philip Holloway, a former prosecutor. “The public understands there have been wrongful convictions and the state realizes it’s not the most economical thing to do.”

Holloway said that while prosecutors like the leverage afforded to them by the death penalty, he expects it will eventually fade away.

Totonchi agreed that use of the death penalty is trending down but said that wasn’t an issue in the decision to grant Meders clemency.

“This was a case decided on its own merits,” she said.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution was unsuccessful in its attempts to contact relatives of Anderson. A spokesman for the Board of Pardons and Paroles said he could not disclose whether any family members attended the clemency hearing, which was closed to the public.

Anderson was working the overnight shift when he encountered Meders and at least one other man, Greg Creel. Meders testified that another man, Bill Arnold, was there too. Arnold, according to Meders, shot Anderson and instructed Meders to grab cash from the register. Arnold and Creel both testified that Meders shot the clerk and stole the money.

Randy Harris, who had spent the previous afternoon drinking with the three men, testified that Meders told him he had “blowed a man’s head off over $38.”

Greg McMichael, recently retired from the Glynn County District Attorney’s Office, worked for the Glynn County Police Department for several years early in his career. He was on duty the night of October 14, 1987, when Anderson was shot to death.

“Everybody knew Don. He was a really nice guy,” McMichael said. “He would talk your ear off.”

Anderson worked the night shift, so officers on the same detail would often stop by to keep him company. The night of the shooting, the officer on patrol radioed McMichael to say he was dropping by the Jiffy Mart for a cup of coffee. A minute later, the officer was back on the radio, shouting details of the horrific scene he’d walked in on.

“The community reacted with shock. That was not a common occurrence in those days,” McMichael said. “We’re still a small community. A homicide is still a big deal here.”

He believes the death penalty was the appropriate punishment. Jan. 16, hours before the sentence was to have been carried out.

“I was a bit confused as to what precipitated that on their part,” McMichael said of the decision to grant clemency. “I won’t go so far as to say I’m pro death penalty; the death penalty is something I’m familiar with.”

During his time on the police force, he worked the case of Carol Sanders Beatty, who was stabbed to death at her home on St. Simons Island in May 1986. In her dying moments, Beatty identified her killer. Her throat had been sliced but she squeezed McMichael’s hand as he spoke letters of the alphabet to name Robert Newland. In March 2009, McMichael witnessed Newland’s execution.

McMichael said he also knows of cases where he’s sure of the guilty party but could never prove it.

“No one gets away with it,” he said. “Whether the punishment is carried out by the penal system or whether it’s carried out by God, God’s ultimately going to judge us all.”

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