ATLANTA – Georgia's parole board on Wednesday issued a decision halting the scheduled execution of a condemned inmate less than 24 hours before he was set to be put to death.
Robert Earl Butts Jr., 40, had been scheduled to die at 7 p.m. Thursday at the state prison in Jackson. The State Board of Pardons and Paroles issued its decision just before 8:30 p.m. Wednesday to grant a stay of up to 90 days to give board members more time to consider the case.
"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," board spokesman Steve Hayes said in an emailed statement.
"We're grateful to the Board for its continuing consideration," Butts attorney Phil Holladay said in an emailed statement Wednesday.
The board could issue a final decision in the case during the stay period or at the end of the 90 days, Hayes said. Earlier Wednesday, the board held a closed-door hearing to listen to arguments for and against clemency for Butts.
A judge in the Superior Court of Baldwin County, where Butts was sentenced to death, last month issued the order for the execution to be carried out within a window starting Thursday and ending May 10. If the board decides to lift the stay and denies clemency within that period, the execution could go forward without a new execution order.
The board also has the option to commute Butts' death sentence to a sentence of life in prison with or without the possibility of parole.
Butts and Marion Wilson Jr., 41, were convicted of murder and armed robbery in the March 1996 slaying of Donovan Corey Parks in central Georgia. The two men asked Parks for a ride outside a Walmart store in Milledgeville and then ordered him out of the car and fatally shot him a short distance away. Prosecutors have said Butts fired the fatal shot.
Authorities said Butts and Wilson were gang members who had gone looking for a victim when they drove Butts' car to the Walmart store.
Juries in separate trials found sufficient evidence to sentence both men to death because Parks was killed during the commission of an aggravating felony, armed robbery. Wilson's case is still pending in the courts.
Butts' attorneys had 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 clemency application 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.
"He asked me to do it for his kid, and I agreed," May told Butts' attorneys, according to the clemency petition.
The document also quotes May saying he was told by Wilson that "he and Robert had agreed to steal Donovan's car, but he had told Robert that they would release Donovan."
Butts' attorneys also argued in his clemency petition that the single aggravating factor wouldn't warrant a death sentence in Georgia today. They also ask the board to consider commuting Butts' sentence to life in prison after weighing abuse and neglect during Butts' childhood, the fact that he was just 18 when the crime occurred and that he has expressed remorse.
Butts' lawyers submitted a supplement to the clemency application to the board at the clemency hearing Wednesday. In that supplement, they argued that evidence in the case indicates that Wilson consistently had possession of the gun used to kill Parks. They also said there's no evidence that Butts was a member of a gang or that Parks' killing was gang-related. They wrote that the fact that the two tried to sell the car at a chop shop shows the crime was financially motivated.