Is Georgia headed for a Kelly Gissendaner Execution Redux?

In September 2015, Georgia executed its only female death row inmate, Kelly Gissendaner, for the murder of her husband Douglas. I’m a self-proclaimed nerd about these kinds of cases so ahead of her execution, I did considerable research on her case. 

Kelly’s boyfriend at the time, Gregory Bruce Owen, held Douglas at knife-point and drove him to a wooded area where he struck him in the head and stabbed him in the neck and back. Kelly arrived on the scene and helped drag the body into the woods and Kelly and Gregory set fire to Douglas’ car and left. Of course, the pair was caught, questioned, and charged. Owen took a plea deal for life in prison and testified in Kelly’s trial that the entire thing was her idea. 

Kelly, who was not there for the stabbing and did not inflict the actual harm, was sentenced to death. It took almost 20 years for the state to put Kelly to death and ahead of her execution, her own children begged the state not to put her to death, citing the loss of one parent already and their mother’s remorse and path to redemption. Her final statement showed nothing short of either. Meanwhile, Gregory will be eligible for parole in 2021.

Full disclosure, I am a critic of the death penalty because I believe it is misused and I believe some of our cases are too flawed to put someone to death. Kelly Gissendaner’s case, in my opinion, is yet another glowing example of just that. She had the idea, she also helped put the body in the woods, but she didn’t kill the man…and yet, she faced a stiffer punishment than the man who actually took the life of another. The case bothered me tremendously because while both parties should have been held accountable for the actions, I’m not sure justice was served. 

Now, four years later, it is possible that Georgia is headed down that pathway again. A pathway of uncertainty that is about to yield the same result. 

Attorney General Chris Carr announced last week that the state is set to put Ray Jefferson Cromartie to death at the end of the month for the 1994 murder of Richard Slysz. Slyz was a store clerk and was shot twice in the head during a robbery.  Cromartie and his accomplice were both charged, but only Cromartie was charged with murder. His accomplice testified for the state, served time for a lesser sentence, and is already out of prison, while Cromartie rolled the dice at trial. In a press release, the AG’s office said the appeal’s process was complete, but also noted that a motion for reconsideration was filed and denied despite one of the ‘witnesses’ from the initial trial offering new testimony. 

For 21 years, Cromartie has maintained that he was there for the robbery, but did not pull the trigger. Part of the case against him cited his role in another shooting which critically injured another clerk two days prior, for which the state claimed Cromartie was responsible. But even in the AG’s own press release, they state that the store video camera was “too indistinct to conclusively identify Cromartie.” The video merely offered a person with a similar description. 

Additionally, for years, one of the key witnesses -Larry Young- says he offered false testimony during the initial trial in rural Thomas County and has agreed to testify to that effect, but the appeals process has never allowed an opportunity for such.

And then there’s DNA testing. Attorneys for Cromartie say testing would show Cromartie did not pull the trigger and sought post-conviction DNA testing in September of this year with the support of the victim’s daughter, but the trial court denied the request. The judge who denied the request for a new trial with the forensics and the witness testimony –Superior Court Judge Frank Horkan- is the same judge who oversaw the trial in which Cromartie was sentenced to death 22 years ago. Horkan said Cromartie ‘should have asked sooner.’

Georgia is ‘party to a crime state’ (OCGA 16-2-20), which means Cromartie could still face the death penalty whether he pulled the trigger or not. But the defense hopes new evidence and a new trial would yield a different result for sentencing. 

People often say, “The process takes too long!” and “He/she has had all of this time to appeal and didn’t…just end it already.” But unless you’ve been in the court system or know someone who has, you simply cannot comprehend how slow justice moves. [The case of former DeKalb police officer Robert Olsen took 4 years to simply get to trial. I have a friend who waited 18 months just to get a HEARING on a motion to consider offering him a new trial.]

In this case, it took 18 years to work through the appeals process. A petition for a writ of habeas corpus at the state level was first filed in 2000, but the first hearing was not held until 2008 and it was denied in 2012. The Georgia Supreme Court upheld the denial in 2013 and the U.S. Supreme Court denied the request to appeal in April 2014. When the federal habeas corpus petition was filed in 2014, district courts took three years to weigh in and SCOTUS again denied the request to appeal in December 2018. That slowness was at the hands of the court. 

I’d argue that the state has an obligation to be slow, cautious, and exhaustive when considering taking the life of another person. Why is there not a desire to be absolutely 100% certain? If the appeals process, which was slow due to the courts and by no fault of Cromartie, had only taken five years or two years or six months, would people be more willing to allow time for forensic DNA testing. Testing, mind you, that was not available at the time the crime and trial took place. What about the witness?

“My father’s death was senseless. Executing another man would also be senseless, especially if he may not have shot my father,” the victim’s daughter, Elizabeth Ligette, wrote in the letter to the court.

If this is supposed to provide some semblance of closure for the family of the victim’s, are they not entitled to be sure it’s the right person?

Do these questions not matter? Has the system not been wrong before? Is there no desire to be sure? 


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