Georgia executes man for store clerk's killing in 1994

JACKSON, Ga. (AP) — A man convicted of killing a Georgia convenience store clerk 25 years ago was put to death late Wednesday night, authorities said.

Inmate Ray Jefferson Cromartie, 52, was pronounced dead at 10:59 p.m. Wednesday after an injection of pentobarbital at the state prison in Jackson. He made no last statement but requested a prayer to be recited before the drugs began flowing.

Cromartie was convicted and sentenced to die for the April 1994, slaying of Richard Slysz at a convenience store in Thomasville, near the Georgia-Florida line. The state said Cromartie also had shot and gravely wounded another convenience store clerk days before the killing.

Wednesday’s execution came shortly after the U.S. Supreme Court, without explanation, rejected two appeals by the inmate’s attorneys.

Cromartie took a number of deep breaths while looking at the ceiling before closing his eyes and going still about five minutes after the drugs began flowing, at one point forming his mouth into an “O” and exhaling heavily. Strapped and taped down to a gurney, Cromartie moved little if at all. A news media witness said Cromartie didn’t struggle and said nothing while being strapped down to a gurney.

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Cromartie had insisted through his attorneys that he didn't shoot either clerk. The defense lawyers had also recently asked state and federal courts to allow DNA testing of evidence collected from the shootings that they say could prove he wasn't the shooter. Lawyer Shawn Nolan called the denial of DNA tests “so sad and frankly outrageous” in a statement after the execution.

“In this day and age, where DNA testing is routine, it is shocking that Georgia decided to end this man’s life without allowing us, his attorneys, access to the materials to do these simple tests,” Nolan said.

The state countered that the DNA evidence being sought couldn't prove his innocence.

Evidence at trial showed Cromartie borrowed a handgun from his cousin April 7, 1994, entered the Madison Street Deli that night and shot clerk Dan Wilson in the face, seriously injuring him. Wilson couldn't describe his attacker and surveillance camera footage wasn't clear enough to conclusively identify the shooter.

Days later on April 10, Cromartie and Corey Clark asked Thaddeus Lucas to drive them to another store to steal beer, testimony showed. Lucas parked, and the other two entered the Junior Food Store. Cromartie shot Slysz twice in the head, prosecutors said. Unable to open the cash register, Cromartie and Clark fled after Cromartie grabbed two 12-packs of beer. In both cases, Cromartie told others he had shot the clerks, evidence showed.

Lucas and Clark testified against Cromartie at the September 1997 trial that concluded with his death sentence. Lucas and Clark each pleaded guilty to lesser charges, served prison time and were released.

Cromartie's lawyers had sought DNA evidence including testing on shell casings from both shootings, clothing found near the first shooting site and clothing samples from Slysz. The DNA testing could prove Cromartie wasn't the shooter, his lawyers had argued. If he wasn't the shooter, he couldn't be guilty of malice murder, the conviction for which he was sentenced to death, their court filings had stated.

They also released three statements from Slysz's daughter, Elizabeth Legette, supporting DNA testing. The latest Tuesday reiterated her “serious questions” about Cromartie’s guilt and criticized state officials for not responding to her calls for testing. She said, “This leads me to the conclusion that victim’s rights extend only to those who support what the state apparently wants most in death penalty cases — the execution of the offender or the alleged offender.”

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A judge last month found it unlikely that DNA testing would lead to a different verdict. The judge also said Cromartie waited too long to request testing and failed to show he wasn't just trying to delay his execution. Georgia’s Supreme Court declined to hear an appeal of that ruling.

Cromartie's attorneys filed a complaint in federal court challenging the constitutionality of the Georgia law governing post-conviction DNA testing and the way the state's courts apply it. That filing also sought an order to allow DNA testing. Last week, lawyers filed a statement from Lucas in federal court in Valdosta claiming he overhead Clark tell someone else he shot Slysz.

U.S. District Judge Mark Treadwell, in an order Tuesday, rejected that move, writing that Lucas’ statement was “not new reliable evidence of Cromartie’s actual innocence.” A three-judge panel of the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld Treadwell’s decision late Wednesday before the U.S. Supreme Court rejected a request to intervene.

Cromartie was initially scheduled to be executed Oct. 30, but Georgia’s high court stopped the proceedings because a state court judge filed an execution order while Cromartie still had an appeal pending before the Supreme Court. State lawyers conceded the order was void and the state set the Wednesday execution.

Cromartie was the third person executed by Georgia this year. The state says it uses the sedative pentobarbital for injections, but Georgia law bars the release of any information about the drug’s source.

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