Same violent crime — one set to die while the other waits

Marion Wilson (left) and Robert Earl Butts (right) were convicted of the same murder. Butts is set to die on May 3 while Wilson's case is getting a second look. PHOTO: Courtesy Georgia Department of Corrections.

Marion Wilson (left) and Robert Earl Butts (right) were convicted of the same murder. Butts is set to die on May 3 while Wilson's case is getting a second look. PHOTO: Courtesy Georgia Department of Corrections.

Gang members Robert Earl Butts and Marion "Murdock" Wilson were together when they asked an off-duty correctional officer for a ride outside a Milledgeville Walmart the evening of March 28, 1996.

They were together when, 16 minutes later, Butts shot Donovan Corey Parks with a sawed-off shotgun then left the 25-year-old lying face-down on a Milledgeville road.

Together they doused Parks’ 1992 Acura Vigor with gasoline and set it on fire behind a Macon Huddle House. Just hours later, the pair applied for landscaping jobs.

Convicted of the same charges — murder, armed robbery, possession of a firearm during the commission of a crime, possession of “certain weapons,” and carjacking, both were condemned by Baldwin County juries.

But on Thursday, Butts, 40, is scheduled to be the second person Georgia has put to death this year while Wilson has more time; how much no one can say. On April 17, the day after Butts' execution warrant was signed, the U.S. Supreme Court sent Wilson's case back to the federal appeals court in Atlanta with instructions to take another look.

For those steeped in the vagaries of death penalty law, such an outcome is no surprise.

“That happens,” said Michael Mears, who is now a professor at John Marshall Law School but who has been involved in 167 capital case of which only 27 went to trial.

One man will go to his death while another, equally responsible for the same murder, has a chance of avoiding lethal injection, he said.

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“It’s the luck of the draw sometimes,” which lawyers represent them, what mistakes were made at trial, which judge hear their appeals, Mears said.

For example, Mears noted, Brandon Jones died by lethal injection in September 2016 for the 1979 murder of a Cobb County convenience store manager, more than three decades after his partner, Van Roosevelt Solomon, was electrocuted on Feb. 20, 1985 for that same murder. Brandon Jones' case took longer to work through all the appeals after a second sentencing trial was ordered because there was a Bible in the room with jurors as they deliberated his punishment the first time.

And David Lucas was executed on April 27, 2016, for the 1998 murders of a Jones County father and his two children, more than 5 1/2 years after his co-defendant, Brandon Rhode, was electrocuted on Sept. 27, 2010.

“Different issues come up in (a) case,” said Georgia State University law professor Lauren Sudeall Lucas. “They just move at different paces… There are different lawyers and different issues in each case. There may be claims one can raise the others cannot.”

District Attorney Stephen Bradley, who was an assistant district attorney during the trials of both Butts and Wilson, said the Supreme Court’s decision on Wilson has no bearing on Butts’ case. In their appeal, Butts’ attorneys are claiming the death sentence is not proportional to the crime, at least not by today’s standards. Wilson’s most recent appeal focused on the arcane question of what prior state court ruling the federal appeals court should evaluate when deciding the merits of a condemned inmate’s case.

For Donovan Parks’ father, Freddie, 22 years is long enough to wait for justice.

“I’ve been praying I’d see this day and they would get what’s coming to them,” Parks, 75, told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

He said he’s kept his son’s clothes, which he sometimes wears. “I know he would want me to have them. None of it was given away,” he said.

The Georgia Diagnostic and Classification State Prison in Jackson is where the execution chamber is located. (Ben Gray / Staff)

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Freddie Parks plans to witness Butts’ execution. “I feel like I’m doing something for my son. …I feel like I would have accomplished something for him, justice for him.”

But then he must wait for a final decision on the fare of the second many convicted of killing his son.

Donovan Parks, like his father, became a prison guard after graduating high school. But the younger Parks had plans, his father said. Instead of making corrections his career, he wanted to attend college.

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The night that he was killed, Parks, a Jehovah’s Witness, had just come home from Bible study at the Milledgeville Kingdom Hall, across the street from the house he shared with his recently-widowed father. Parks was still wearing his tie and checkered grey suit when he left for a quick trip to Walmart for cat food.

According to then-District Attorney Fred Bright, Butts and Wilson also had gone to the Walmart, “shopping for somebody to kill.” Prosecutors said the two 18-year-olds were looking to make an impression on other members of their gang, FOLK Nation.

At 9:50 p.m., Parks handed a Walmart cashier $7.93 for four cans of cat food, tropical fish food, soap and cocoa butter. Behind him, Butts waited to pay for a 20-cent pack of Wrigley’s chewing gum.

Butts worked with Parks at a local Burger King and he asked for a ride for him and Wilson.

A single-barrel sawed-off shotgun hidden in the sleeve of his Colorado Rockies jacket, Butts got in the front passenger seat. Wilson climbed in the back after Parks cleared out a spot for him to sit.

The gurney used for lethal injections sits behind glass windows in a small cinder block building at the Georgia Diagnostic and Classification Prison in Jackson. (Ben Gray/Staff)

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Minutes later, on street dotted with pre-fabricated houses, Wilson grabbed Parks’ necktie, cinching it so tightly it later had to be cut off. Butts ordered Parks out of the car and shot him in the back of the head, leaving the officer face-down in his own blood and brain matter.

The two fled to Atlanta in Parks’ Acura, according to testimony.

Moments after Parks was shot, his father, came up on a body in the road but didn’t recognize his son because of the damage done by the large buckshot. The father called the Baldwin County Sheriff’s Office to report that someone had been hit by a car.

Putnam County Sheriff Howard Sills, who was the chief deputy in Baldwin County at the time, was able to identify the dead man only by matching the initials in the dead man’s class ring to the roster of seniors at Baldwin High School in 1990; there was only one person with the initials BCP.

Wilson was arrested four days later at the courthouse when he came to an appointment related to a DUI conviction. Butts was hiding in his grandmother’s bedroom closet when authorities came for him.

Detectives found the shotgun under Wilson’s mattress. Wilson’s girlfriend said she saw Butts hand him the weapon.

Talking to investigators Wilson blamed Butts for everything. He said he had nothing to prove because he was "chief enforcer" with the local FOLK Nation gang. "I'm as high (in the gang) as I can be. I ain't got to go no higher. I ain't got to do nothing to go no higher," Wilson said in an interview with Sills and Baldwin County Sheriff Bill Massee.

Butts, meanwhile, denied everything at first but then decided to testify at his trial and to lay it all on Wilson. Butts testified that it was Wilson’s idea to steal a car and it was Wilson who “snatched him out” of the car and took him to the back and shot him.

“I was scared…” Butts testified. “I was really upset. And I was feeling, you know, kind of sick at the stomach.”

The jury didn’t believe him and convicted him of murder.

Butts was sentenced to die on Nov. 21, 1998, almost exactly a year after another Baldwin County jury voted to condemn Wilson.