Clemency hearing scheduled Monday for convicted child killer

Virgil Delano Presnell Jr. has been on death row since 1976. He's schedule to be executed Tuesday evening.

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Virgil Delano Presnell Jr. has been on death row since 1976. He's schedule to be executed Tuesday evening.

Virgil Presnell Jr.’s attorney argues his life should be spared

Attorneys representing a convicted child killer who has spent 46 years on death row will get one last chance to spare his life Monday, the day before his scheduled execution.

Virgil Delano Presnell Jr.’s clemency hearing is set for 9 a.m. before the state’s five-member parole board. Presnell’s attorneys, meanwhile, contend the signing of the 68-year-old’s death warrant violates a written agreement reached with the state Attorney General’s Office last year delaying most executions until after the COVID-19 pandemic.

In an emergency motion filed last week, Presnell’s lawyers argued they have not had enough time to prepare.

The state appears to be moving forward with its plans, however, and prison officials announced Thursday that Presnell had ordered his last meal.

Sentenced to die by lethal injection for the 1976 murder of an 8-year-old Cobb County girl and the rape of her 10-year-old friend, Presnell requested four hamburgers, french fries, two vanilla milkshakes, four sodas, an eight-piece bucket of chicken, potato salad and two pints of vanilla ice cream, the Georgia Department of Corrections said.

The State Board of Pardons and Paroles has the sole authority to grant or deny clemency, commute Presnell’s execution or issue a stay of up to 90 days. Monday’s hearing is closed to the public.

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In a clemency request submitted to the parole board, Presnell’s attorney Monet Brewerton-Palmer asked that his scheduled execution be delayed and ultimately commuted to a sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole.

The 51-page filing said Presnell has “significant cognitive impairments” that held him back in school and may have contributed to his crimes. It also details his nearly five decades on death row, during which he was routinely raped and beaten at two state prisons.

“People can and will debate whether Mr. Presnell has served enough time, but nobody can dispute that he has served hard time,” Brewerton-Palmer wrote. “His crime was the worst of the worst — and so has his sentence been.”

Presnell, she said, is “deeply and profoundly sorry” for the pain he caused his victims and their families and wishes he could “take it all back.”

There have been 75 men and one woman executed in Georgia since the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty in 1976, the year Presnell drowned 8-year-old Lori Ann Smith in a shallow creek after abducting two girls as they walked home from school.

If Tuesday’s execution is carried out, Presnell would be the state’s 54th prisoner put to death by lethal injection. There are currently 37 men and one woman facing the death penalty in Georgia, according to the Department of Corrections.

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Last week’s lawsuit, filed in Fulton County Superior Court against the state and Attorney General Chris Carr, said last year’s agreement established three conditions that must be met before the resumption of executions: the expiration of the Georgia Supreme Court’s COVID-19 judicial emergency, the resumption of normal visitation at state prisons and a COVID vaccine that’s “readily available to all members of the public.”

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While the first condition has been met, state prisons are not back to regular visitation schedules and the vaccine still isn’t available to children under 5, said the lawsuit, which asked the court to grant an injunction delaying Presnell’s execution.

A Fulton County judge is set to hear arguments at 1 p.m. Monday, hours after the parole board’s meeting. A spokeswoman for Carr’s office declined to comment on the lawsuit, citing the pending litigation.

On May 4, 1976, Presnell kidnapped the two girls as they walked home Russell Elementary School in Smyrna. Authorities said he had been scouting out the area, watching young girls near the school. He raped the 10-year-old and then killed 8-year-old Lori Ann when she tried to run away, drowning her face-down in nearby Nickajack Creek.

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During a retrial in 1999, key testimony was provided by the surviving victim. She told the court Presnell snuck up behind them, forced them into his blue Plymouth Duster and took them to a wooded area where he raped the older child in front of her friend.

After catching and drowning Lori Ann when she tried to run, Presnell forced the 10-year-old back into his car. She eventually managed to escape and run for help at a nearby gas station, investigators said. Presnell was arrested after police found him changing at an apartment complex.

Authorities said Presnell quickly confessed to the killing and led police to Lori Ann’s body. He was initially sentenced to death in 1976 but that was overturned on appeal. He received another death sentence during his 1999 retrial.

During his trial, Presnell’s mother and other relatives testified that his life should be spared because his mind was warped by a childhood of incest and abuse. He’s scheduled to be executed at 7 p.m. Tuesday at the Georgia Diagnostic and Classification Prison in Jackson.