Killer’s execution delayed pending Georgia Supreme Court appeal

The scheduled execution of a Georgia man who murdered an 8-year-old girl 46 years ago was postponed Tuesday evening, one day after a Fulton County judge granted an injunction temporarily halting the process.

Virgil Delano Presnell Jr., 68, was set to die by lethal injection after spending nearly five decades on death row. But Superior Court Judge Shermela Williams issued an order staying the execution Monday evening during an emergency hearing that lasted nine hours.

The Georgia Attorney General’s office appealed that injunction Tuesday, but the Georgia Supreme Court did not issue a ruling ahead of the scheduled execution.

“We’ve been advised by the Attorney General’s office that we will not be proceeding with the state-ordered execution of Virgil Presnell tonight,” Department of Corrections spokeswoman Joan Heath told reporters outside the Georgia Diagnostic and Classification State Prison in Jackson.

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 8-year-old Lori Ann Smith 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.

The five-member State Board of Pardons and Paroles denied clemency Monday during a closed-door hearing lasting much of the day. According to Presnell’s execution warrant signed last month, the Department of Corrections has until May 24 to carry out the execution.

In a clemency petition, Presnell’s attorney Monet Brewerton-Palmer said “significant cognitive impairments” and abusive an childhood may have contributed to her client’s crimes. Sexual abuse was “endemic” in Presnell’s family, she wrote, and he was raised in an abusive and unstable environment.

Attorneys representing the Federal Defender Program contend the state’s decision to execute Presnell violates a written agreement with the AG’s office postponing most executions until after the COVID-19 pandemic.