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In the crosshairs of conscience: John Kitzhaber's death penalty reckoning

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To cope with his dread, John Kitzhaber opened his leather-bound journal and began to write.
It was a little past 9 on the morning of Nov. 22, 2011. Gary Haugen had dropped his appeals. A Marion County judge had signed the murderer's death warrant, leaving Kitzhaber, a former emergency room doctor, to decide Haugen's fate. The 49-year-old would soon die by lethal injection if the governor didn't intervene.
Kitzhaber was exhausted, having been unable to sleep the night before, but he needed to call the families of Haugen's victims.
"I know my decision will delay the closure they need and deserve," he wrote.
The son of University of Oregon English professors, Kitzhaber began writing each day in his journal in the early 1970s. The practice helped him organize his thoughts and, on that particular morning, gather his courage.
Kitzhaber first dialed the widow of David Polin, an inmate Haugen beat and stabbed to death in 2003 while already serving a life sentence fo…

Georgia state panel stays execution of Robert Earl Butts Jr.

Robert Earl Butts Jr.
ATLANTA – A state panel has decided to delay the execution of a Baldwin County man convicted of killing another man during a 1996 carjacking.

The decision, announced late Wednesday night, halts the execution of Robert Earl Butts Jr., who was scheduled to die Thursday evening. The state Board of Pardons and Paroles can spend up to three months considering whether to spare Butts’ life. 

“Due to the considerable amount of additional information the board has received regarding the case and because the Board understands the importance and seriousness of its authority and responsibility, a stay was issued,” the board’s spokesman Steve Hayes said in a statement. 

Attorneys for Butts claimed this week that a witness who claimed at trial that Butts told him he was the triggerman now says he lied in an attempt to help Butts’ co-defendant, Marion Wilson, who also sits on death row for the murder of 24-year-old Donovan Parks.

“He straight up asked me to do it for his kid, and I agreed,” the petition claims Horace May said of Wilson, whose girlfriend was pregnant at the time. May was incarcerated with both defendants as they awaited trial. 

It was likely one of the key arguments made Wednesday during a closed-door meeting of the board, which usually closes clemency hearings to the public. Butts’ attorneys declined to comment Wednesday through a board spokesman. 

Butts was scheduled to die by lethal injection Thursday night at 7 p.m., which would have made him the second person to be executed in Georgia this year. The board has the authority to reduce his death sentence to life in prison with or without the possibility of parole. 

Butts and Wilson, who were accused at trial of belonging to the Folk Nation gang, targeted Parks after standing behind him in the checkout line at the Milledgeville Wal-Mart, where Parks was buying cat food. Butts had once worked with Parks at a fast food restaurant. 

The pair followed him out to the parking lot and asked for a ride. They later pulled out a sawed-off shotgun and demanded that Parks, who worked as a corrections officer, stop the car. Parks was then shot in the back of his head on the side of the road. 

When Butts and Wilson couldn’t sell Parks’ Acura for parts in Atlanta, they set the car ablaze in Macon. 

Butts denied his involvement when caught two decades ago because he says he thought it was “wrong to snitch.” Now, the 40-year-old admits that he played a role – although he points to Wilson as the shooter. 

“I think about Mr. Parks and that night every single day, going over it again and again in my mind,” Butts wrote, according to a statement included in his petition. 

“There’s no excuse for what I did, and I’m tremendously sorry for what happened to Mr. Parks,” he added. 

District Attorney Stephen Bradley with the Ocmulgee Judicial Circuit said Wednesday that the changing testimony should make no difference. 

“Our position from day one with this case is it doesn’t matter who pulled the trigger because we’ll never know for certain,” Bradley said. 

“They’re each claiming it’s the other one, but all we know for certain is that these are the two people responsible for Donovan Parks’ death,” he added. “And the jury treated them the same and we think they ought to be treated the same because that’s what follows the credible evidence.” 

Parks’ father, brother and other family members were among those who implored the board to uphold Butts’ death sentence. They did not speak to the media Wednesday. 

“The family is exhausted from the long wait,” Bradley said of the 22 years that have passed. 

Butts was represented Wednesday by Phil Holladay with King and Spalding and Gerald King and Victoria Calvert with the Federal Defender Program in Atlanta. 

Butts’ mother – who was painted as an absentee parent who spent her son’s childhood drunk and high – was there to beg the board to show mercy. His siblings, uncles and pastor were also there. 

Butts’ attorneys also argued that the board should consider their client’s difficult childhood, as well as his age when the crime was committed. He was 18 years old. 

They also argued that there’s been a shift away from death sentences in Georgia. They claimed that a jury would be far less inclined to sentence Butts to death for the same crime – which involved one murder victim and one aggravating factor – if committed today. 

Source: unionrecorder.com, Jill Nolin, May 2, 2018


Board holds clemency hearing for condemned Georgia inmate


Georgia's parole board on Wednesday was considering whether to grant clemency for a condemned inmate set to be executed this week.

Robert Earl Butts Jr. is scheduled to die Thursday evening at the state prison in Jackson. The State Board of Pardons and Paroles was holding a closed-door clemency hearing to hear arguments for and against commuting the 40-year-old inmate's sentence.

The parole board is the only authority in Georgia with the power to commute a death sentence.

Butts, 40, and Marion Wilson Jr., 41, were convicted and sentenced to death in the March 1996 slaying of Donovan Corey Parks in central Georgia. The two men asked Parks for a ride outside a Walmart store and then ordered him out of the car and fatally shot him a short distance away. Prosecutors have said Butts fired the fatal shot.

Wilson's case is still pending in the courts.

Butts' attorneys asked the parole board in a clemency application filed last week to spare his life.

"I think about Mr. Parks and that night every single day, going over it again and again in my mind," Butts said in a statement included with his petition. "There's no excuse for what I did, and I'm tremendously sorry for what happened to Mr. Parks."

His attorneys insisted in the petition that Butts wasn't the shooter. A jailhouse witness, Horace May, who testified at trial that Butts confessed to being the shooter has now signed a sworn statement saying he made the story up out of sympathy for Wilson, whom he also met in jail. Wilson also told May that the pair had agreed to steal Parks' car but that Butts believed they would release Parks, the statement says.

Butts' lawyers have also filed challenges in several courts.

They argued in a filing in Baldwin County Superior Court, where he was originally sentenced, that Butts' execution should be halted and he should be resentenced. Given recent trends in sentencing, he wouldn't be sentenced to death today so his death sentence is "grossly disproportionate," they argued. A judge rejected that argument, and Butt's lawyers filed a notice of intent to appeal to the state Supreme Court.

In a petition filed in Butts County Superior Court, where the prison that houses death row is located, his lawyers argued that his sentence is unconstitutional. He was 18 at the time of the killing and a chaotic and troubled childhood stunted his intellectual, social and psychological growth, causing his mental age and maturity to lag behind his actual age, his lawyers wrote. Executing him would be like executing someone who was younger than 18 when his crime was committed, and that's not lawful, his lawyers argued.

His attorneys have also consistently argued that his trial lawyers were ineffective and failed to thoroughly investigate his case or to present mitigating evidence, including a childhood characterized by abuse and neglect that could have spared him the death penalty. State and federal courts have rejected his appeals, but his lawyers have argued that a Georgia Supreme Court opinion published in January and a U.S. Supreme Court ruling last month in Wilson's case open the door for a federal judge to consider his claims of ineffective assistance of counsel. A federal judge has rejected those arguments.

Butts would be the second inmate executed by Georgia this year. Carlton Gary, convicted of raping and killing three older women and known as the "stocking strangler," was put to death March 15.

Source: Associated Press, May 2, 2018


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