Condemned child killer should be spared from execution, attorney says

Virgil Delano Presnell Jr. has been in prison since October 1976. He's scheduled to die by lethal injection on Tuesday.

Credit: Georgia Department of Corrections

Combined ShapeCaption
Virgil Delano Presnell Jr. has been in prison since October 1976. He's scheduled to die by lethal injection on Tuesday.

Credit: Georgia Department of Corrections

Virgil Presnell’s clemency hearing underway

A convicted child killer set to be executed Tuesday evening should be spared, his attorney argued, citing “significant cognitive impairments” and an abusive childhood that may have contributed to his crimes nearly five decades ago.

Virgil Delano Presnell Jr.’s clemency hearing began at 9 a.m. Monday before the State Board of Pardons and Paroles. The five-member panel has the sole authority to delay the 68-year-old’s execution or commute his death sentence to a term of life in prison. The closed-door meeting is expected to last all day and a final decision likely won’t be made before this evening.

Combined ShapeCaption
Monet Brewerton-Palmer, Virgil Presnell's attorney, addresses the five-member State Board of Pardons and Paroles on Monday morning during her client's clemency hearing.

Credit: Shaddi Abusaid / shaddi.abusaid@ajc.com

Monet Brewerton-Palmer, Virgil Presnell's attorney, addresses the five-member State Board of Pardons and Paroles on Monday morning during her client's clemency hearing.

Credit: Shaddi Abusaid / shaddi.abusaid@ajc.com

Combined ShapeCaption
Monet Brewerton-Palmer, Virgil Presnell's attorney, addresses the five-member State Board of Pardons and Paroles on Monday morning during her client's clemency hearing.

Credit: Shaddi Abusaid / shaddi.abusaid@ajc.com

Credit: Shaddi Abusaid / shaddi.abusaid@ajc.com

Presnell kidnapped two Cobb County girls as they walked home from Russell Elementary School in May 1976, raping a 10-year-old and then drowning her 8-year-old friend in a nearby creek when she tried to run. He was sentenced to death later that year, and again in 1999 after his first sentence was overturned.

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

The 51-page filing suggests Presnell has severe brain damage stemming from his mother’s heavy drinking while she was pregnant. Sexual abuse was “endemic” in Presnell’s family, his lawyer said, and he was raised in an abusive and unstable environment.

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.”

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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.”

The abduction and murder of 8-year-old Lori Ann Smith stunned the South Cobb community, said former U.S. Rep. Buddy Darden, who was Cobb’s district attorney at the time. He remembers the May 4, 1976, killing occurred the day then-Gov. Jimmy Carter won the state’s Democratic presidential nomination.

While many argue the merits of capital punishment, Darden said so long as the death penalty remains an option in Georgia, he believes Presnell is deserving of it.

ExploreOPINION: 44 years on Georgia’s death row — and counting

“This was an egregious case and there was never any real doubt about the evidence,” Darden said, noting that life without parole was not an option during Presnell’s initial sentencing.

“If any case ever merited the death penalty, this was certainly one,” he said. “Looking back on it, the circumstances were so horrible and so heinous.”

Several of the victims’ former classmates have discussed the case on social media recently and how it affected their upbringing.

Cobb resident Tracy Taylor, who was a year older than Smith, remembers how shocked and sad they were after learning of the attack.

Prior to the 8-year-old’s murder, she and her friends were allowed to ride their bikes wherever they wanted as long as they were back by dark. Afterward, they were told by their parents not to stray too far from home.

“One day we could play outside with our friends without a care in the world,” Taylor said Saturday. “The next we couldn’t do that any more.”

In spite of the abuse he endured during his 46 years on death row, Presnell has a “spotless disciplinary history and has been a model prisoner,” his attorney argued.

He was 22 when he was convicted, but now he is a “quiet, simple old man with a developmental disability who adores his son and his sister,” Brewerton-Palmer said.

ExploreClemency hearing scheduled Monday for convicted child killer

“Executing him after all this time would serve no purpose, and would bring more pain to more innocent people,” she wrote in the clemency request. “It would also be wholly contrary to the ideals of a civilized society to execute someone so profoundly disabled.”

A separate hearing was underway Monday afternoon in Fulton County Superior Court, where attorneys representing the Federal Defender Program filed a lawsuit against the state and Attorney General Chris Carr. The lawsuit contends the decision to execute Presnell violates last year’s agreement with the AG’s office postponing most executions until after the COVID-19 pandemic.

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