Even victims in the dark about parole board’s gun-rights process

When Georgia’s parole board considers restoring a convicted felon’s firearms rights, it doesn’t discuss the case in public.

Or in private.

Each board member votes in isolation, and in secrecy. The five members rarely, if ever, deliberate as a body over restoring offenders’ gun rights. They keep no public record of their votes. And they give neither public notice nor public explanation of decisions that enable felons to re-arm – not even to the felons’ victims.

Georgia’s process for restoring firearms rights to convicted felons, even those who used guns to commit violent crimes, is among the most secretive in the nation, almost entirely unregulated by the state’s open government laws, an investigation by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution has found.

The Board of Pardons and Paroles asserts that virtually all information in such cases is a “confidential state secret.”

Why? The board won’t say.

Through a spokesman, board members declined to be interviewed. They also directed senior staff members not to comment.

Some former board members, however, suggest the process is overly secretive and open to abuse.

“There needs to be scrutiny,” said a former board member who spoke on condition of anonymity to avoid harming relationships with current members. “There needs to be an opportunity to see if the information they’re relying on is accurate. What is the rationale for not releasing that information?”

The board doesn’t allow the public to examine an offender’s application for a pardon with gun rights, character references, or investigative reports by the board’s staff. With no scrutiny, the board has restored gun rights to record numbers of offenders: 666 in 2013, 10 times more than in 2008, the Journal-Constitution found. During the same period, the proportion of violent offenders among the pardon recipients spiked from 6 percent to 31 percent. These offenders include murderers, rapists and child molesters, among others.

The board members who decide on gun rights, parole, clemency and other matters are appointed by the governor to staggered, seven-year terms. They earn base salaries of $135,000 a year as full-time state employees. Terry Barnard, the chairman, and James Mills, the vice chairman, are former state legislators. James Donald and Albert Murray ran criminal-justice agencies in the administration of former Gov. Sonny Perdue. The fifth member, Braxton Cotton, worked in law enforcement and state government. All five are Republican appointees.

The governor’s only role is to choose the board’s members.

Once they take office, the members don’t answer to the governor – or anyone else.

“The intention is honorable,” said Gale Buckner, a former board chairwoman. “They do their very best to be as competent as possible.”

PRIVATE PRACTICE

Simply getting to the room where the parole board conducts its occasional public meetings can be a test of will.

Visitors first go through a security checkpoint in the lobby of a state office building in downtown Atlanta. Then, upstairs, there is a second checkpoint – another metal detector, this one operated by an armed parole officer. She takes the names of visitors and asks why they’ve come to the meeting.

Inside, two more officers separate the audience from the dais where board members sit. Members of the public may not address the board until the end of the meeting – and then only about items on that day’s agenda, after the board has already acted on those matters.

The board calls these sessions each month. But since January 2013, it has canceled nine of the 20 scheduled meetings.

When the board meets, it deals only with administrative matters, often technical changes to its operating rules. Questions of parole, firearms rights and other issues involving offenders are decided entirely in private, with no meetings or even consultation among board members.

Former board members said the staff prepares a file on each case, and the file passes from one member to the next, usually without comment. As soon as three members – a majority – vote the same way, the case is decided. As many as two board members may never see the file.

Unlike Georgia, 37 other states have a public process for gun-rights restoration, according to the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers. Some conduct a public hearing in each case. Some require offenders to publish newspaper ads in the communities where they committed crimes so citizens may weigh in. Others require periodic reports to lawmakers and the public. Rhode Island makes felons get not only the governor’s approval but ratification from the state senate.

Twenty-four states will not decide gun-rights cases unless victims or their families have been notified. Seven other states tell judges or prosecutors, who may then inform victims.

In Georgia, victims have no way of knowing the parole board is considering a felon’s gun rights request. Buckner said board members have the option of searching an offender’s file for previous statements by victims — but nothing, she said, requires them to do so.

STATE SECRETS

The board bases its secrecy on a section of state law that says all documents and statements that come into its possession are “confidential state secrets.”

Divulging such a secret, the law says, is a misdemeanor.

The language dates to the board’s creation in 1943, which followed what was suspected to be pardons-for-cash schemes involving two governors. Over the past 70 years, the board has turned that language into an almost absolute exception to the state’s open records and open meetings statutes.

The board places less emphasis on complying with provisions that would strip away its cloak of confidentiality. One section of the law says the board’s hearings “shall be public.” Another restricts the board from closing hearings about clemency or parole unless an open session would “present a substantial risk of harm or injury to a witness.”

The board flatly declares all such hearings closed to the public. It doesn’t bother to justify closures by citing threats to specific witnesses, even in cases with strong public interest. Before hearing clemency pleas on behalf of Death Row inmates, the board issues a press release announcing it will close the meeting to the public and the press — except for a brief photo opportunity at the start.

In such cases, it is impossible to evaluate the rationale behind board decisions that literally have life-or-death consequences.

Consider clemency requests the board received from two condemned killers, Troy Anthony Davis and Tommy Lee Waldrip. Davis was convicted of murdering a Savannah police officer, Mark MacPhail, but most of the prosecution’s witnesses later recanted their stories, and some identified another man as the killer. Waldrip was one of three men convicted of killing Keith Evans of Dawson County to keep him from testifying in a criminal case, but the only one sentenced to death.

The board denied clemency for Davis in 2011, and the state executed him the next day. It approved Waldrip’s request this year, removing him from Death Row just 26 hours before his scheduled execution.

It gave no reason for either decision and kept secret how each member voted.

Unlike other state agencies, the board does not vote in public on proposals to move into closed session. The board’s chairman does not sign an affidavit swearing that only legally permissible topics were discussed in private. And the board doesn’t have to take final votes in public, as other agencies do, even if discussions took place in private.

“For all practical purposes, the board is authorized to close the meeting when receiving information regarding clemency,” said Lauren Kane, a spokeswoman for Georgia Attorney General Sam Olens.

No other state agency keeps so much information secret, open government advocates say.

“While there occasionally may be a legitimate reason for shielding limited information from the public, it is hard to believe that a state board with such a critical mission is so insulated from public oversight,” said Hollie Manheimer, executive director of the Georgia First Amendment Foundation. “The public is keenly interested in the criminal justice system. … With so little access to information about this state board, the public is unable even to evaluate if it is functioning properly.”

PUBLIC SILENCE

At 10:03 a.m. Aug. 5, a side door opened to the parole board’s meeting room, and the five board members silently walked to their seats, single-file. The room’s decor is a study in neutrality: Tan walls. A tan curtain that forms a backdrop for the dais. No decorations except for framed portraits of former board members.

This was the board’s regularly scheduled monthly meeting, the only forum in which its members conduct business in public.

About 25 people sat in the audience: parole board staff, a few clusters of inmates’ relatives, lawyers who represent clients seeking pardons. Barnard, the chairman, recapped “a busy, busy month” since the previous meeting, including the swearing-in of new parole officers. A chaplain led the board and the audience in prayer, concluded “in your son Jesus Christ’s name.” Then the board presented a gift to its former chairman, Murray: a navy blue blazer with a parole board badge sewn into the inside lining. Murray modeled the jacket as he described his tenure as the capstone to his long public-service career.

“It made me even more humble than I already am,” Murray said.

Barnard also gave Murray a nameplate for his desk bearing an honorary title: “chairman emeritus.”

“In my heart,” Barnard said, “you will always remain my chairman.”

Twenty-three minutes into the meeting, the board turned to its agenda. With no debate, it quickly adopted several amendments to its rules, most of them technical in nature.

Finally, Barnard opened the floor for public comment. But first, he said remarks would be “entertained” only if they concerned items the board had already discussed that day. Anyone wanting to talk about an offender, he said, could leave comments with the agency’s call center.

Barnard asked if anyone wanted to speak.

Silence.

Barnard adjourned the meeting at 10:36 a.m. For this month, the board was finished conducting the public’s business, at least in public.

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