Board grants clemency to death-row inmate

As a massive high school defensive tackle, Daniel Greene had an unusually gentle nature on the football field. As a former coach wrote this week to the State Board of Pardons and Paroles, “We could not coach the niceness out of him.”

During one five-hour rampage in 1991, however, Greene stunned those who knew him in close-knit Taylor County by killing former classmate Bernard Walker and then attacking an elderly couple and a store clerk as he stole money to buy crack cocaine.

On Thursday, Greene, 42, was supposed to be executed for his crimes. But in an unusual decision Friday, the parole board spared Greene’s life and sentenced him to serve the rest of his life in prison without the possibility of parole.

The decision marked just the fourth time since 2002 the board granted clemency to a death-row inmate. During the same period, 25 condemned killers were put to death by lethal injection.

The five-member parole board, after a lengthy clemency hearing Tuesday, granted Greene a stay to consider pleas for mercy from former teachers, relatives, friends and a prison guard who called the 6-foot-5, 350-pound inmate “as fine a man as I have ever met.” Just three days later, the board commuted the sentence.

Not all welcomed the decision. Bob Bacle, the former police chief in Reynolds who held Walker in his arms as he died, expressed outrage. On Tuesday, he appeared before the parole board and asked for the death sentence to be carried out.

“When I looked into Bernard’s eyes, I told him I’d seek justice for him if I could,” said Bacle, who retired from the force in 2005. “I’m really upset.”

Jeff Ertel, one of Greene’s lawyers, said he was overjoyed for Greene and his family.

“I recognize the loss of Bernard Walker and the harm caused to the others was a tremendous loss for the people of Taylor County,” he said. “I would like to thank the board for its courageous act.”

Bacle described Walker, who did odd jobs for many residents in Taylor County, as an exceptional young man trusted and liked by everyone. Bacle said he had repeatedly asked Walker to join the police force, but Walker always refused.

“He said he couldn’t lock anyone up,” the former chief said. “He had such a kind heart.”

Taylor County Sheriff Chief Jeff Watson, a teammate of Greene's and the quarterback of the team at Taylor County High, said the murder devastated the community and "deeply scarred and tore apart two really good families." When he heard the news that Greene killed Walker, Watson said he couldn't believe it.

"It was just so out of character," Watson said. "That wasn't the Daniel I knew -- the easy-going guy, always laughing and cutting up."

Watson said he declined an invitation to attend the execution. Instead, Watson said, he and a local pastor paid Greene a visit Tuesday on death row because, "God had put him on my heart."

Greene's crime binge occurred Sept. 27, 1991, when he first went to the Suwanee Swifty store in Reynolds and forced the clerk to give him $142 from the cash register. He told police that when she yelled out, he stabbed her. When Walker, 20, arrived and tried to help the clerk, Greene fatally stabbed his former classmate in the heart before fleeing the scene.

Greene then drove to the home of a Macon County couple who had previously employed him as a farm laborer. Greene burst into their house, took their car keys and then stabbed Willie and Donice Montgomery multiple times. The couple survived.

"Daniel Greene is as fine a man as I have ever met in my life," Foster wrote. "He is not like anyone else on death row. ... I have seen him cry when talking about the people he hurt and killed and the loss he caused to the people in his hometown."

At Taylor County High, Greene wore number 71 stretched across his enormous frame. His coaches gave the linemen the nickname "Ton of Fun" because they were all oversized guys with bubbly personalities who loved playing the game, his former position coach, Freddie Harmon, told the parole board.

Harmon said he did a lot of screaming at Greene to be more aggressive on the field but it was useless because he was too worried about hurting someone. He'd hit running backs hard enough to bring them down but not hard enough to injure them and he always offered a hand to help up an opposing player.

When the crimes occurred, Harmon said, he was convinced Greene must have been under the influence of mind-altering drugs. "You just don't become bad overnight," he said. "Daniel Green was very gentle and was never a violent person."

On Friday, Taylor County Commission Chair Patty James Bentley expressed relief the board spared Greene.

As a 15-year-old, Bentley said, she was ostracized by high school classmates after she became pregnant. Except, that is, for Greene who continued to treat her as a friend, encouraged her and told her not to listen to what others were saying. Walker, she said, was also a dear friend of hers and when she found out Greene had murdered him, she knew he had to be out of his mind on drugs.

"I'm excited for the news and I thank God for the parole board," Bentley said. "I just pray that we don't have anything like this happen again in Taylor County."