Parole board rejects death row inmate’s request for clemency

The Georgia Diagnostic Prison in Jackson, where the state’s execution chamber is located. (John Spink / / 2011 AJC file photo)

The Georgia Diagnostic Prison in Jackson, where the state’s execution chamber is located. (John Spink / / 2011 AJC file photo)

The State Board of Pardons and Paroles has denied clemency to death row inmate Travis Hittson, who is scheduled to be executed by lethal injection Wednesday at 7 p.m. for killing a fellow Navy sailor.

The board's decision, announced late Tuesday, rejected pleas for mercy from Hittson's legal team. In their clemency petition, the lawyers told the board Hittson is extremely remorseful for what he did, has had an exemplary prison record, and was manipulated to commit the murder by a co-defendant who may one day be paroled.

Hittson's attorneys appeared before the parole board Tuesday morning. In the afternoon, the board heard from Houston County prosecutors. The clemency hearing was not open to the public.

The murder occurred April 3, 1992, in Warner Robins. According to court records, Hittson's lead petty officer, Edward Vollmer, told Hittson to kill fellow sailor Conway Utterbeck, 20, on the pretense that Utterbeck was planning to kill them.

That spring, all three men were sailors aboard the USS Forrestal, an aircraft carrier based in Pensacola, Fla. They were assigned to the engineering department. On the weekend of the murder, Vollmer invited Hittson and Utterbeck to come with him to his parents’ home. Vollmer’s parents were out of town.

After Vollmer and Hittson went out drinking that Saturday night, Vollmer gave Hittson a baseball bat and told him to go inside and hit Utterbeck to incapacitate him. Hittson found Utterbeck asleep on a recliner and struck him repeatedly on the head.

Vollmer then handed a pistol to Hittson and told him to shoot Utterbeck. Hittson did as instructed and fatally shot Utterbeck in the forehead, court records say. Hittson and Vollmer later cut up Utterbeck’s body and buried the remains in different places.

The clemency petition says Vollmer exercised “unnatural dominance and control” over Hittson and manipulated him into killing Utterbeck.

It also cited numerous members of the Navy who knew all three men at the time and who said they opposed Hittson being executed for what he did.

“Neither Mr. Hittson nor those who wish to speak on his behalf have shut their eyes to his guilt,” the petition said. “Mr. Hittson committed an appalling act; an act which took the life of Conway Utterbeck and harmed his family in profound and irreparable ways.

“Those who know Mr. Hittson, however – even law enforcement personnel who knew him only long enough to hear him confess and assist in the investigation of this crime – are united in their conviction that he is remorseful and would never have committed this terrible crime absent the deliberate manipulation of his codefendant and naval superior, Edward Vollmer.”

The clemency petition said Hittson was a kind, awkward and naive young man who was always trying to please others and had a terrible drinking problem. And once Vollmer became Hittson’s superior, he began to manipulate him.

“Mr. Hittson’s lower rank, gullibility, alcoholism and desperation for approval made him peculiarly vulnerable to Edward Vollmer who, by all accounts, exercised an unnatural dominance and control over Mr. Hittson,” the filing said.

Vollmer was allowed to plead guilty in exchange for a life sentence with the possibility of parole.

“This disparity in punishment is troubling and profoundly unfair,” the petition said, “given the overwhelming agreement … that Mr. Hittson would never have committed an act like this if he had not met Edward Vollmer.”

Separately, Hittson’s lawyers are now appealing to the Georgia Supreme Court a state court judge’s ruling on Tuesday that denied a request to order a new sentencing trial for Hittson.

The last time the state parole board commuted a death row inmate’s sentence was in July 2014. In that decision, the board spared Tommy Lee Waldrip, who was sentenced to death for the 1991 murder of Keith Evans, a college student who was about to testify against Waldrip’s son in an armed robbery case.