DAWSONVILLE — A bill signed into law by Gov. Nathan Deal on Friday offers insight into one of the state's most secretive agencies.
Known as the parole board transparency act, House Bill 71 originated in Dawson County last summer, though the inspiration to seek answers dates back 24 years when a young man's decision to "do the right thing" led to his brutal murder.
Rep. Kevin Tanner, R-Dawsonville, authored the legislation following the state's pardons and parole board's vote last summer to commute the death sentence of Tommy Lee Waldrip without sharing how or why it reached that decision.
Just like the murder of Forsyth County food store manager Keith Evans shook the tightknit Dawson County community 23 years earlier, the board's move to overturn Waldrip's death sentence for his part in the slaying devastated the family. Also affected were the many who had worked on the case over the years, including Tanner, a former sheriff’s deputy.
"To the Evans family, even though this is not going to change the outcome of their case, I'm hopeful that they know that through the tragedy they faced other people will not have to endure that same outcome,” Tanner said.
Evans’ father, Cleve, said he was "real proud to see it finally done.”
The younger Evans was a local college student and night manager of a small grocery store in nearby Cumming, when he was shot, beaten to death and buried in a shallow grave days before he was set to testify in an armed robbery case.
In 1991, Waldrip, along with his son John Mark Waldrip and brother-in-law Howard Livingston, killed Evans to prevent him from testifying against the younger Waldrip.
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 numbered 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, among many other charges. He was sentenced to death.
In separate trials, John Mark Waldrip and Livingston were sentenced to life in prison for their involvement.
Gov. Deal signed the bill into law Friday morning at the Georgia Racing Hall of Fame.
He praised the legislation, which requires the board to give a written explanation of the facts and the circumstances that they consider in arriving at a decision to overturn a jury's verdict.
"I think that is altogether appropriate," he said. "It doesn't mean that they have to sit down and write a detailed opinion like an Appellate Court would do, but it does require that they give the reasons why they would undo a process that takes years to arrive at that point in time."
A former assistant district attorney in the Northeastern Judicial Circuit, which includes Dawson and Hall counties, Deal recalled a time years ago when he jokingly said the best-case scenario a prosecutor could hope for in Dawsonville was a mistrial.
"It was difficult to obtain convictions for anything. That has changed fortunately," he said. "To have a death sentence imposed is not an easy undertaking. To be able to try a case and then convince a jury that the death penalty is the appropriate punishment is not easy to do."
Having that sentence overturned is disheartening, he said, "because those who overturn it have not felt the pain associated with why that penalty was imposed in the first place."
The bill also requires the parole board to "provide notification to a victim of the date set for hearing such request and provide the victim an opportunity to file a written response" within 72 hours of receiving a request to commute a death sentence.
Tanner's original bill also would have opened information pertaining to the decisions of the pardons and paroles board, though that portion was not part of the Senate's version.
"The Senate did water it down some, but it's still a major step in the right direction of increasing transparency in that process," he said. "We'll monitor how they take this. If they don't open up on their own even more, then we'll bring forth additional legislation in the future," he said.
District Attorney Lee Darragh helped prosecute the murder cases two decades ago. He called Keith Evans a hero of the criminal justice system.
"We must remember that although the Evans family is very disappointed in the commutation of Tommy Lee Waldrip to a life without parole instead of the death penalty, Keith Evans was a hero," Darragh said. "He was a hero in the first case for having stood up for what's right and having to sacrifice despite the danger that was obvious in the end.
"Now he continues to be a hero through this event because it was his case that provided the impudence to make positive changes on behalf of victims and victim's families in the way the parole board does things."