Parole board probe is a killer
"Here we were, in the 11th hour, talking to a federal judge with the attorney general's office on the phone in a conference call, very conscious of the fact that if we could have been more eloquent, we could have saved Mincey's life."
Thomas West is sitting behind his computer in a second floor office in Colony Square. The defense attorney's office is filled with crates overflowing with manila folders, which are stuffed with court documents, depositions, legal briefs and motions of almost every kind.
The crates are marked in black magic marker with the last name of his clients, mostly accused murderers on death row.
As the sun slides down between the glass and steel buildings across Peachtree Street, West talks about the first case that ever asked a federal judge to excuse members of the state Board of Pardons and Paroles.
West was looking for a board capable of objectively listening to Terry Mincey's plea for clemency so he wouldn't be executed by lethal injection.
He was hunting for a board that wasn't embroiled in state contract controversies, sexual harassment cases and wasn't being investigated by the attorney general's office — the same office that worked its butt off year after year to make sure Mincey would die for killing a convenience store clerk in 1982.
Now, Mincey is dead and West is still looking for an unbiased parole board.
Two parole board members, Chairman Walter Ray and Bobby Whitworth, are being investigated for using their state offices to make money for themselves and for the companies that hired them as lobbyists.
A secretary is accusing a third board member, Eugene Walker, of sexual harassment.
During the conference call last October with the federal judge, lawyers working in Attorney General Thurbert Baker's office argued that the goings-on in the parole board were state issues and not within federal jurisdiction. After hearing each side's argument over the phone, the judge agreed with the attorney general's office.
"That time, we didn't even get to argue the merits of the [parole board's] conflict of interest," West says.
Mincey was executed Oct 25, 2001.
The next time around, during the case of Fred Gilreath, death row attorneys dealt with the jurisdiction issue by going straight to the federal level. Their goal, of course, was to shut down executions in Georgia.
The parole board is the last stop an inmate makes on his way to the execution chamber.
The problem, though, is that inmates, usually hours from being executed, ask for mercy from a board with two members under investigation for using their state office for private gain, and another who's fending off a sexual harassment lawsuit filed by a former secretary.
At the heart of the death row lawyers' complaint is the appearance of conflict. The parole board members, so the argument goes, will do anything to please the attorney general's office, which is the same office that's investigating their supposed misdeeds, as well as the agency that demands the death penalty for the people who ask the board for clemency.
Three out of the five men to be executed by lethal injection argued that the parole board was corrupt and sought a stay of execution while the three members are replaced by people with no allegiance to the attorney general's office.
The board also grants paroles, pardons and can commute sentences for the 47,000 inmates in Georgia's prisons.
Clemency, in the eyes of the law, means mercy. Once someone is sentenced to die, there are dozens of legal motions that could keep that person from being executed. Along the way, the attorney general's office fights to keep the inmate on course for the execution.
The five parole board members are appointed by the governor and can vote, if they so choose, to grant the condemned man or woman clemency.
West and dozens of other attorneys and capital punishment opponents considered Fred Marion Gilreath to be the poster child of someone who deserved clemency. His crime was one of passion fueled by alcohol.
In 1979, Linda Gilreath filed for divorce from Fred Gilreath and with her father went home to get her clothes. Fred Gilreath killed them both in eight shots.
None of the 25 inmates that have been executed in Georgia since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976 were found guilty of a crime involving a domestic dispute, so Gilreath's lawyers thought he'd have a good chance of being saved.
More importantly, the victims' family members begged the parole board to grant Gilreath clemency. The common myth is that victims' kin beg the board to make the execution more painful — but real life doesn't support that stereotype.
One board member, Betty Ann Cook, said, "When making a parole decision, a victim's voice is heard above all others."
That may be true under normal circumstances, but three members on Georgia's parole board have very good reasons to listen to the voices of the lawyers in the attorney general's office instead.
Parole board members are paid $108,900 a year. Whitworth, Ray, Walker, Cook and Garfield Hammonds Jr. comprise the board, entrusted with the near divine power of life and death. According to state investigations, their behavior falls a little short of divine.
Lawrenceville's Bobby Whitworth was appointed to the board by Gov. Zell Miller in 1993 and was reappointed in January 1996. He joined the Department of Corrections in 1973 and worked his way up to commissioner in 1989.
Whitworth is the same man who came under fire in 1991 for hiring his own son and the kinfolk of other state officials when he was corrections commissioner.
State Rep. Carlton Colwell also played a central part in that scandal. He was chairman of the House committee that oversees the Department of Corrections. In July 1991, Colwell said, "I didn't ever pressure anyone to hire anybody." But Colwell's daughter, sister-in-law, niece and nephew were employed by the department at the time.
Miller appointed Chairman Walter Ray to the board in 1996. Before that, Ray was a state senator from the middle of South Georgia. In his 12 years in the Senate, Ray was a big wig, serving as president pro tempore (second in command behind the lieutenant governor), majority leader, the governor's floor leader and as Corrections Committee chairman.
The fiasco that has Ray and Whitworth in the middle of an attorney general's probe began in July 2001 when a parole board lobbyist, Lisa Phillip-Thompson, told Fox5 News that her bosses were working for private companies in the capacity of their state jobs.
The attorney general's office began investigating Ray and Whitworth shortly after.
The thrust of that investigation centers on Senate Bill 474, which, when signed by the governor May 1, 2000, shifted parole oversight of misdemeanor probationers from the state to city and county governments. This meant that local governments would have to set up their own probation program or outsource their probation services to a private company.
Parole board spokeswoman Kathy Browning says the bill Whitworth and Ray are accused of profiting from would save the state money.
"We were interested in the bill because it would keep us from having to parole misdemeanor [offenders] out of the prison system," Browning says. "It would be up to the counties and city governments to find a way to have those misdemeanor probationers supervised. They could develop their own system, or go the private route. It didn't say that they had to go the private route."
Here's how Ray and Whitworth are involved. Both were hired lobbyists for the Bobby Ross Group and for Detention Management Services. The companies make or made money by running probation programs for local governments.
Detention Management Systems paid Ray $11,000. The company paid Whitworth $75,000 over four years and he received more than $100,000 for working for the Bobby Ross Group, which runs three juvenile services in Georgia.
Whitworth has since resigned as a consultant for the Bobby Ross Group.
Ray and Whitworth are represented by attorney Bobby Lee Cook, one of the most well-known defense attorneys in the state. In response to a request to interview his clients, Cook said: "I don't want you talking with them."
In previous board meetings, both Ray and Whitworth said they've done nothing wrong or illegal.
Cook did talk about the case for about 10 seconds. About the attorney general's investigation into his clients, he says, "It's bullshit. I don't think they have a case at all."
No matter what Cook says, the attorney general's office is now in the midst of a full-scale criminal investigation. The lead attorney for the case said so during a November hearing on the Gilreath case about the attorney general's relationship with the parole board.
Deputy Attorney General Michael Hobbs was asked, "You are beyond the stages of deciding whether this case should go forward with a formal investigation, is that correct?"
"That is correct," he answered, according to a transcript of the proceedings.
He also said, "I can say to the court that this is a serious investigation," and that it's a criminal investigation.
That investigation includes the request and examination of Ray and Whitworth's expense reimbursements, official travel records, cell phone records (including long distance and local airtime charges), and sick leave records since Jan. 1, 1996.
Investigators also questioned Sen. Carol Jackson, the sponsor of Senate Bill 474, employees in the Department of Corrections and staff with the Board of Pardons and Parole.
"They asked me who talked to me about [the Senate bill], and what did we talk about," Jackson says. "I have not talked to [Ray and Whitworth] about that bill."
Browning, spokeswoman for the parole board, says, "They requested lots of stuff that had to do with contracts. They interviewed me and they interviewed lots and lots of employees around here."
Since the story about the investigation first broke over the summer, Creative Loafing has obtained documents showing that, from the very beginning, the attorney general's investigation into Ray and Whitworth reaches out to eight other individuals, five of whom have been involved in previous contracting scandals and apparent conflicts of interest dating back to 1996.
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The probe into Ray and Whitworth also includes a $25,000 contract that went to Career Mappers Inc. That deal may have benefited the wife of a friend of Whitworth's.
The parole board bought a pilot program from Career Mappers that gives parolees aptitude tests.
A woman named Dotty Edwards was paid a commission for introducing the Career Mappers people to the state officials who eventually hired them.
Her husband, former South Carolina state Rep. T.W. Edwards Jr., is registered to lobby in Georgia for the Bobby Ross Group, which is the same company involved in the Whitworth investigation.
The scenario state investigators are looking at is one of dubious contracts involving prison construction and parole services. There's also cronyism tied to the Department of Corrections and the Board of Pardons and Paroles. And all of it was orchestrated by a tight group of buddies that received its political education in the halls of the Georgia General Assembly.
And let's not forget about Eugene Walker, the soon-to-be defendant in a sexual harassment civil case.
In 1984, he was elected to the state Senate, worked his way up to the Majority Whip position and served until 1992. Gov. Zell Miller named Walker as the commissioner of the Department of Juvenile Justice in 1995, a position he held until Gov. Roy Barnes appointed him to the parole board in April 1999.
Seven months later, Walker began talking about sex, making sexually oriented requests, and talking about his own sexual performances to his secretary, Patricia Alexander, in the parole board offices, according to a letter notifying the state that Alexander intends to sue Walker for as much as $3 million.
Alexander's attorney, Diane Cherry, says she'll file the lawsuit against Walker by the end of February.
At a board meeting in December, Walker said he's "the subject of wild charges ... I know the facts will clear Gene Walker's name."
Ironically, although the attorney general's office is probing Walker's associates, it will defend Walker once the suit is filed.
Whether the board members actually did anything wrong is irrelevant to the inmates who plead for their lives.
What is relevant — more like vital — to their circumstances is that the investigation has created a conflict of interest that effectively demands loyalty to the attorney general's office.
And that's exactly what the defense attorney West and Georgia Resource Center attorney Thomas Dunn argued on behalf of Gilreath and Byron Ashley Parker, another death row inmate executed because a judge wasn't convinced that the parole board was beholden to the attorney general's office.
But John Jones, a lawyer for the attorney general's office, has countered, "When it comes to [pardons and paroles] decisions, and in fact this decision, on commutation, there is absolutely no participation from our office ... so there is no conflict. Their house of cards absolutely stands and is built on this potential conflict whereas there is no conflict."
In fact, there are nine steps during the clemency process where the attorney general's office is required to participate, according to West. And all along the way, the office pushes for the death penalty.
West says, "The parole board knows the attorney general's office is opposed to clemency. They've been fighting against it at every avenue that could stop an execution and all of a sudden the attorney general is supposed to be silent? I mean, give me a freaking break! It's laughable."
But that's not the way U.S. District Judge Owen Forrester saw it Nov. 14 during a hearing for the Gilreath case.
Forrester ruled that the attorney general's office has no opinion on clemency, thereby killing all hopes of finding board members who aren't under investigation by the attorney general's office.
So, in mid-November last year, Ray, Whitworth and the other board members — except one — gathered to hear Linda Gilreath's sister and daughter say that they'd forgiven Fred Gilreath, and pleaded that he be spared from execution.
They were unsuccessful. The board voted against granting him clemency.
"Gilreath was a very compelling case. If you can't get clemency in a case like that, you can't get clemency," West says. "Politically, clemency is something they (the parole board) don't want to do. They are all political animals, the parole board."