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Governor to sign parole transparency bill in Dawsonville

DAWSONVILLE — Gov. Nathan Deal will be in Dawsonville on Friday morning to sign a bill into law that will make sweeping transparency changes to one of the Georgia's most secretive agencies.

A signing ceremony is planned for 10:15 a.m. at Dawsonville City Hall.

State Rep. Kevin Tanner, a Republican from Dawsonville, authored House Bill 71, known as the parole board transparency act.

The measure stemmed from the pardons and parole board's vote last summer to commute the death sentence of Tommy Lee Waldrip without sharing how or why they came to that decision.

Just like the murder of Forsyth County food store manager Keith Lloyd Evans shook the tightknit Dawson County community 23 years before, the board's decision to overturn Waldrip's death sentence for his part in the slaying devastated family, and many that worked the case over the years, including Tanner, who was a sheriff’s deputy at the time.

"I just believed then — and I believe now — that whether you agree with the death penalty or not, that family deserves a better answer than, ‘It's a secret and we can't discuss it,'" he said.

In addition to opening transparency in parole board decisions, the bill tackled another secretive practice that for the first time in 70 years that would bring more transparency to the parole process.

"Pardons were being granted to individuals who were sex offenders and violent criminals. Their gun rights were being restored without the victims having any knowledge that a pardon was even being considered or granted," Tanner said.

Once signed by the governor, the parole board will be required within 72 hours of receiving a request to commute a death sentence 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."

Tanner's original bill also would have opened information pertaining to the decisions of the pardons and paroles, 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.

In 1991, Waldrip, along with his son John Mark Waldrip and brother-in-law Howard Livingston, killed Evans, a Dawsonville resident who was set to testify against the younger Waldrip in an armed robbery case.

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 at the time numbered about 10,000.

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 involvement.