Twenty-six hours before he was to be executed for a murder 23 years ago, Tommy Lee Waldrip was granted clemency.
The state Board of Pardons and Paroles made the rare decision to commute a condemned man’s sentence to life without parole Wednesday even as state and federal courts had turned down his appeals.
Waldrip’s execution was set for 7 p.m. Thursday for the murder of Keith Evans, a college student who was about to testify against Waldrip’s son in a re-trial of an armed robbery case.
The board’s decision came several hours after members heard pleas for mercy from relatives, friends and Waldrip’s lawyers, and then from prosecutors and members of the Evans family who wanted the execution carried out.
The board does not give a reason for its decision. Members vote individually and only the chairman, who collects the ballots, knows how each one decided. The decision required a simple majority, three out of five members.
But one issue raised before the board was that the sentences for Waldrip, his son and Waldrip’s brother, all convicted of murdering Evans on April 13,1991, were not proportional. Prosecutors did not seek the death penalty against Howard Livingston, Waldrip’s brother, but they did in the cases against Tommy Lee Waldrip and his son John Mark Waldrip.
The three men were tried separately. Only Tommy Lee Waldrip was sentenced to die. John Mark Waldrip and Livingston are serving life sentences.
“Our hearts go out the Evans family,” said Jeff Ertel, one of Waldrip’s lawyers. “Of course we’re happy that the board has chosen to spare Mr. Waldrip’s life.”
This was the fifth time since 2002 that the board has commuted the sentence of a death row inmate. The most recent one was on April 12, 2012, when the board commuted the death sentence of Daniel Greene.
Dawson County District Attorney Lee Darragh, who was not in office when Waldrip was tried, did not return a phone message left at his home Wednesday evening. Attempts to reach the Evans family throughout the week were not successful.
Of the three men convicted in the case, Tommy Lee Waldrip was tried first. Because of the publicity in such a small community, jurors were brought in from Habersham County; they voted for death.
John Mark Waldrip’s case was heard by jurors from Gwinnett County. He was sentenced to life with the possibility of parole even though he pulled the trigger to fire buckshot into Evans’ face and he is the one who used a blackjack to beat the 20-year-old to death. John Mark Waldrip has been eligible for parole since 1998.
“I can assure you this board would have looked at every aspect of this case,” said Robert Keller, a former Clayton County district attorney who also served on the parole board for seven years. “It is the hardest thing for anybody to do. I have full confidence in how they did it.”
Evans was a key prosecution witness in the 1990 armed robbery trial against John Mark Waldrip. But a new trial was ordered and Evans was expected to testify again.
Two days before his retrial, on that Saturday afternoon, John Mark Waldrip threatened another man who was to testify against him, and then that evening, the two Waldrips and Livingston intercepted Evans as the was driving home from work.
According to testimony, they forced Evans’ truck off the road and the younger man fired buckshot through the windshield. Then John Mark Waldrip and his uncle, Livingston, drove off in the truck, with Evans in the passenger seat, and the elder Waldrip followed in his wife’s Ford Tempo.
They drove to Hugh Stowers Road in Dawson County, and that is where Evans was beaten to death.
Evans was buried in a shallow grave in neighboring Gilmer County. But his truck, set on fire, was found in Dawson County. Deputies found a copy of Tommy Lee Waldrip’s wife’s insurance card on the ground and that is how they came to focus on him.
Dawson County Sheriff Billy Carlisle said he was assigned to surveillance outside the Harvest Baptist Church, where he as well as Tommy Lee Waldrip worshiped. The sheriff said he was disturbed to see Waldrip go into the sanctuary where Carlisle’s wife and children were attending the service.
“How can you do something like this on Saturday night and go to church the next morning … and lead singing like nothing ever happened?” Carlisle said in an interview with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution on Wednesday before the board announced its decision.
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