A local family is devastated after the state's pardons and parole board on Wednesday commuted the death sentence of convicted killer Tommy Lee Waldrip.
"We are in shock and disbelief that this is the outcome," said Angela DeCoursey, younger sister to Keith Lloyd Evans of Dawsonville, who was brutally murdered in 1991 days before he was set testify against Waldrip's son in an armed robbery case.
Waldrip was scheduled to be put to death today for his role in the slaying.
"We feel that the justice system failed Keith originally and again now. We feel that there is no justice system at all," DeCoursey said.
In a rare decision, the Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles granted Waldrip clemency after hours of testimony by the Evans family and prosecutors wishing to see the death penalty sentence carried out, as well as Waldrip's relatives and lawyers requesting that his life be spared.
The five-member panel changed Waldrip's death sentence to life without parole, which means he will spend the rest of his life behind bars. He was scheduled to die by lethal injection today at the Georgia Diagnostic and Classification Prison in Jackson.
"I can't believe they did that," said Dawson County Sheriff Billy Carlisle. "It doesn't give much credit to our justice system. A jury found him guilty, a judge sentenced him to death, the Supreme Court ruled against him and they took it upon themselves to change his sentence. It makes no sense to me. It's very disappointing."
Waldrip was sentenced to death in 1994 following his conviction for killing Evans, a popular college student and grocery store manager from Dawsonville, in April 1991.
"It is certainly disappointing for my office and for the family of the courageous Keith Evans that the parole board has chosen to commute the death penalty that the brave, right-thinking jury imposed upon Tommy Lee Waldrip 20 years ago," District Attorney Lee Darragh said.
Darragh led the prosecution in the case in Habersham County, where it had been moved to avoid a tainted jury among Dawson County's 10,000 residents.
"Waldrip and his son John Mark, along with Waldrip's [brother in law], savagely beat to death a young man willing to stand up for justice. That while Tommy Lee Waldrip will never taste freedom again is a good thing, this decision represents incomplete justice. My prayers are for the family of Keith Evans in this difficult time."
The slaying 23 years ago was one of the most brutal murders in Dawson County history.
Evans was driving home from his job as night manager of a small grocery store in nearby Cumming when he was run off the road and forced out of his truck. A short time later, Evans was shot, beaten to death and buried in a shallow grave.
Law enforcement personnel involved in the 1991 investigation remain haunted by the case, which began two years earlier when Evans witnessed an armed robbery at Food Center on Ga. 9 in Forsyth County.
"It was one of the most high-profile cases Dawson County had back then and the first time I'd ever seen anything like this happen," said Carlisle, who was working as a patrol deputy at the time.
Evans was set to testify against Waldrip's son, John Mark Waldrip, and his brother-in-law, Howard Kelly Livingston, in the trial for the 1989 armed robbery. The trial had been scheduled to start two days after he was reported missing.
Evans had called his mother moments before leaving work the night of April 13, 1991, saying he was on his way home. Just after midnight, a friend spotted his truck on fire.
After putting out the blaze, authorities found an insurance card at the scene for a car belonging to the Waldrip family.
"At that point, knowing that Keith Evans was supposed to testify on Monday in a case involving John Waldrip, son of Tommy Waldrip, it became pretty clear that it looked like foul play," said State Rep. Kevin Tanner, who was a deputy at the time.
The next morning, Tanner and Carlisle watched from across the street as the Waldrips attended Sunday services at Harvest Baptist Church.
"That's what always floored me," Carlisle said. "How can you kill a boy on Saturday night and go to church on Sunday morning like nothing ever happened? I never could understand how he could have done that."
After church, Carlisle and Tanner followed Waldrip to a prison in Floyd County, where he was visiting an incarcerated son. They acquired a search warrant for his vehicle from the Georgia Bureau of Investigation and confronted him there.
On the return trip to Dawsonville, Carlisle said Waldrip made a comment from the back seat that caught his attention.
"He said something like, ‘I didn't mean for it to go this far,' or, ‘We didn't mean for it to happen this way.' I remember writing that in my report when I got back to Dawson County," Carlisle recalled.
"At one point during the investigation, Tommy Waldrip confessed to being involved in the killing of Keith with his son John and his brother-in-law Howard Livingston," Tanner said.
The suspect then led authorities to a shallow grave in neighboring Gilmer County where the trio had buried Evans and to a second spot containing the gun.
The three suspects were each charged in the murder and faced separate trials three years later. The proceedings were held in different counties to avoid a tainted jury from Dawson's population, which was only about 10,000 at the time.
In October 1994, a jury found Tommy Lee Waldrip guilty of malice murder, two counts of felony murder, kidnapping with bodily injury and aggravated battery.
He also was convicted of five counts of aggravated assault, theft by taking of a motor vehicle, arson in the second degree, intimidating a witness and concealing a death.
In addition, he was found guilty of possession of a firearm by a convicted felon and two counts of possession of a firearm in the commission of a felony. He was sentenced to death.
In separate trials, John Mark Waldrip and Livingston were sentenced to life in prison for their parts in the slaying.
DeCoursey on Thursday said the family wanted to thank the community for its support over the last two decades.
"We appreciate our church, Bethel Baptist Church, that has stood by us for 23 years and a community that has stood by us for 23 years and given us their support and continue to support us," she said.
FCN regional staff contributed to this report.