"One is absolutely sickened, not by the crimes that the wicked have committed, but by the punishments that the good have inflicted." - Oscar Wilde

Thursday, February 18, 2016

Georgia executes Travis Hittson

Travis Hittson
Travis Hittson
A former Navy crewman was put to death Wednesday in Georgia for killing a fellow sailor whose remains were found buried in two states.

Travis Hittson, 45, was executed by a lethal injection of pentobarbital at 8:14 p.m. at the state prison in Jackson. He was convicted in the April 1992 killing of Conway Utterbeck.

Hittson accepted a final prayer and recorded a final statement, according to the Georgia Department of Corrections.

On his final day of life, Hittson met with two relatives, four friends and eight members of his legal team.

Hittson was scheduled to die at 7 p.m. but, as is usually the case, there were delays while the state waited for all the courts to decide whether the execution should be stopped. 

The State Board of Pardons and Paroles, which is the only entity in Georgia authorized to commute a death sentence, rejected Hittson’s request for clemency after a hearing on the matter Tuesday.

Hittson's lawyers had argued his life should be spared because he's shown great remorse and because Vollmer manipulated him into killing Utterbeck.

SCOTUS denied a stay of execution for Travis Hittson shortly prior to his execution. No dissents were noted.

Hittson was mistreated and neglected as a child and constantly craved the approval of others, his lawyers have said. That, combined with alcoholism and relatively low intelligence, made it easy for his direct supervisor in the Navy, Edward Vollmer, to manipulate him into killing Utterbeck, Hittson’s lawyers argued.

Hittson's lawyers appealed a state court judge's decision, denying a request to throw out Hittson's death sentence. But a Butts County judge denied that request and Hittson's lawyers appealed that decision to the Georgia Supreme Court.

"Mr. Hittson was robbed of a fair and reliable sentencing trial when the prosecutor was permitted to sandbag the defense with the testimony of a state psychologist, Dr. Robert Storms, who revealed off-the-cuff but nevertheless callous statements allegedly made by Mr. Hittson about the victim, during a pre-trial evaluation," the petition said.

During the trial, the trial judge had said he would not let Storms take the stand unless Hittson's lawyers presented psychiatric mitigation evidence during the sentencing phase of the trial, the petition said. Even though Hittson's defense team did not present such evidence, the judge let Storms testify anyway, the petition said.

For this reason, Hittson's defense team "was utterly disarmed by the prosecution's tactic, abetted by the trial court's disregard of both governing law and its own assurances," the petition said.

State lawyers said those arguments have previously been raised and rejected by the courts and are procedurally barred.

Hittson, Utterbeck and Vollmer were stationed in Pensacola, Florida, in April 1992 when they went to Vollmer’s parents’ home in Warner Robins in central Georgia for a weekend.

Hittson told investigators he and Vollmer went out drinking the second night they were there, leaving Utterbeck at the house. As they were driving back to the house, Vollmer told Hittson that Utterbeck planned to kill them both and that they needed to “get him” first, according to court filings.

When they reached the house, where Utterbeck was sleeping in a recliner, Vollmer put on a bulletproof vest and took a sawed-off shotgun and a handgun from his car and gave Hittson an aluminum baseball bat. On Vollmer’s instructions, Hittson hit Utterbeck several times in the head with the bat and then dragged him into the kitchen where Vollmer was waiting, according to court filings. Vollmer stepped on Utterbeck’s hand and Hittson shot him in the head, according to court filings.

Vollmer said they needed to cut up Utterbeck’s body to get rid of the evidence, according to court filings. Hittson told investigators he began to cut the body with a hacksaw but he became sick and Vollmer finished dismembering the body, according to court filings.

They buried Utterbeck’s torso in Houston County in central Georgia and brought the rest of the remains back to Pensacola and buried them there.

When investigators began questioning Utterbeck’s shipmates months later, Hittson confessed and also implicated Vollmer, according to court filings. He led investigators to Utterbeck’s remains and other crime scene evidence.

Hittson was convicted of malice murder, aggravated assault, possession of a firearm during the commission of a crime and theft by taking. He was sentenced to death for the malice murder conviction.

Vollmer reached a plea deal and is serving a life sentence. He was denied parole in 1999 and again last year. Reconsideration of his case is set for 2020, parole board spokesman Steve Hayes has said.

Hittson is the 2nd person Georgia has executed in 2 weeks. Brandon Astor Jones, 72, died by lethal injection in the wee hours of Feb. 3 for a 1979 Cobb County murder. There are at least 3 men who have run out of regular appeals and could see execution dates set soon.

Hittson becomes the 2nd condemned inmate to be put to death in Georgia this year and the 62nd overall since the state resumed capital punishment in 1983. Only Texas (534), Oklahoma (112), Virginia (110, Florida (92) and Missouri (86) have carried out more executions since the death penalty was re-legalized in the USA on July 2, 1976.

Hittson becomes the 7th condemned inmate to be put to death this year in the USA and the 1429th overall since the nation resumed executions on January 17, 1977.

Sources: MSNBC, Atlanta Journal-Constitution,  DPN Twitter feed, Rick Halperin, Feb. 17, 2016

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