Less than 23 hours before Robert Earl Butts Jr. was scheduled to die by lethal injection, the State Board of Pardons and Paroles issued a rare 90-day stay of execution, saying it needed time to examine and discuss a “considerable amount of additional information.”
Butts was scheduled to get the needle at 7 p.m. Thursday for the 1996 murder of 25-year-old Donovan Corey Parks, a correctional officer in Baldwin County who was off duty when killed.
“Everything is just going bad,” said Freddie Parks, the slain man’s father, who had just hours earlier asked the Parole Board to deny Butts clemency. “Ain’t nothing I can do about it. It’s in the hands of the Lord.”
The board said in a statement it could lift the stay at any time. The execution warrant will remain open until noon next Thursday. If the board does not lift its stay before then, a new execution warrant will have to be issued.
“The board will continue consideration of the case and at a later date make a final decision,” board spokesman Steve Hays said.
The decision came after advocates for Butts met with the board for almost four hours. One of the men who prosecuted Butts, law enforcement and members of the Parks family then spent about 2½ hours with the five-member board.
Butts’ lawyer argued there was no proof that Butts actually pulled the trigger. They also disputed prosecutors’ contention that Butts and his partner in the crime, Maurice “Murdock” Wilson, were members of the FOLK Nation gang.
District Attorney Stephen Bradley, who helped prosecute the Baldwin County murder 22 years ago, said the Parole Board’s decision “wasn’t terribly surprising.”
“The case was well-tried and once they’ve had time to sift through it, they’ll make a good choice. We want them to feel comfortable.”
Putnam County Sheriff Howard Sills, who was the chief deputy in Baldwin County in 1996 and investigated the murder, had a different reaction.
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“I’m a little mystified at the stay, considering the evidence in this case, considering the brutality of this case, and especially considering the testimony (before the Parole Board) of the Parks (family),” Sills said.
The last time the board stayed an execution was on April 17, 2012. Daniel Green was scheduled to be executed for a 1991 Taylor County murder. The board commuted Green’s sentence to life without parole three days later.
Butts’ lawyers argued that Wilson actually pulled the trigger of the sawed-off shotgun on March 28, 1996. After shooting Parks, the two men left the officer dead in the middle of a Milledgeville street, driving off in his 1992 Acura, which they’d hoped to sell for parts.
Bradley, after meeting with the board, acknowledged they will never know for certain who pulled the trigger. But he said anyone who is a party to a crime is still guilty.
“It doesn’t matter who pulled the trigger,” Bradley said. “All we know is these two people are responsible for killing (Donovan) Corey Parks. … Butts’ role was to choose the victim.”
If Butts is executed, he will be the second person Georgia has put to death this year.
Meanwhile, Wilson is challenging his own death sentence, which remains pending in the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. The day after Butts’ execution warrant was signed on April 16, the U.S. Supreme Court sent Wilson’s case back to the federal appeals court in Atlanta, instructing the judges to take another look at it.
Butts’ lawyers had filed court appeals on Wednesday, raising issues such as his age at the time of the murder — he was 18 — and the fairness of executing him for a crime that today would not call for a death sentence.
According to testimony, which Butts’ lawyers dispute, Butts and Wilson were both members of the FOLK Nation gang in Milledgeville and were at the local Walmart “shopping” for a victim when they crossed paths with Parks, who was at the store for cat food, soap and cocoa.
Parks, a Jehovah’s Witness, had just left Bible study at the Kingdom Hall across the street from the house he shared with his widowed father.Butts, in the checkout line behind Parks that evening, bought a 20-cent pack of gum and followed the officer outside.
Butts knew Parks from a part-time job the correctional officer once had at a local Burger King.
Butts, with a sawed-off shotgun in the sleeve of his Colorado Rockies jacket, asked Parks for a ride, according to Bradley.
Sixteen minutes after Butts and Wilson got into Parks’ car, the officer was dead. Parks’ father found the body moments later but didn’t realize it was his son. Freddie Parks called to report someone had been hit by a car.
Hours after killing Parks — when their plan to sell Parks’ Acura failed — Butts and Wilson drove back to Middle Georgia, where they set the car on fire behind a Macon Huddle House.
The two were arrested four days later after they were identified by witnesses and surveillance camera video that captured their movements that night and the next morning.
They were tried separately but both were convicted and sentenced to die.
“Both he and Mr. Wilson were desperate for money, and his motivation for participating in the crime was nothing more than economic,” Butts’ lawyers wrote in the follow-up letter.
They were not trying to prove themselves to a gang, the lawyers wrote.
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In their plea for clemency, Butts’ attorneys asked the board to consider his home life as a child. They wrote that his mother was an alcoholic and a drug user who often left her children to fend for themselves. They also wrote that Butts’ father suffered from mental illness.
“The profound childhood neglect he endured as his parents left him to care for his younger siblings while they roamed the streets of Milledgeville, each in the grip of mental illness, drug addiction or both … offer additional and compelling grounds for mercy,” the petition read.
Butts’ mother, Laura Waller Butts, was at Wednesday’s meeting with the parole board, along with his brother, two sisters and four uncles. They all declined comment as they left.
The district attorney, Sills and Baldwin County Sheriff Bill Massee met with the board for almost 2½ hours.
The murder victim’s family also was there — Parks’ father, brother and aunts.
Massee said the Parks family is exhausted from the strain of waiting as Butts and Wilson fight their death sentences.
“These two fellas are responsible for this horrible crime,” Massee said.
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