- Associated Press - Wednesday, November 13, 2019

ATLANTA (AP) — Prison officials in Georgia prepared to execute a man Wednesday evening for the fatal shooting of a convenience store clerk 25 years ago.

Ray Jefferson Cromartie, 52, is scheduled to receive a lethal injection after 7 p.m. at the state prison in Jackson. He was convicted of malice murder and sentenced to death for the April 1994 killing of 50-year-old Richard Slysz in Thomasville, south Georgia.

The state says Cromartie also shot and gravely wounded another convenience store clerk days earlier.

Cromartie insists through his attorneys that he didn’t shoot either clerk. They’ve 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. The state has argued that the DNA evidence being sought couldn’t prove his innocence. Courts have, so far, rejected the requests for DNA testing.

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 the person who shot him, 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 say. 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 ended with his death sentence. Lucas and Clark each pleaded guilty to lesser charges, served prison time and were released.

Cromartie’s lawyers are seeking DNA testing on shell casings from both shootings, clothing found near the first shooting site, a package of cigarettes found near Slysz’s body, and clothing samples from Slysz and others they say are potential shooters.

The DNA testing could prove Cromartie wasn’t the shooter, his lawyers argue. 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 stated.

They’ve also released three statements from Slysz’s daughter, Elizabeth Legette, supporting DNA testing. The latest, released Tuesday, reiterates her “serious questions” about Cromartie’s guilt and criticizes state officials for not responding to her calls for testing. “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.”

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 asked for an order to allow DNA testing. Last week, lawyers filed new evidence in federal court in Valdosta, including a statement from Lucas claiming he overhead Clark tell someone else he shot Slysz.

U.S. District Judge Mark Treadwell, in an order Tuesday, rejected that push.

“Lucas’ statement is not new reliable evidence of Cromartie’s actual innocence,” Treadwell wrote. “While Lucas claims to have overheard Clark tell Young that he shot Slysz, Lucas also states repeatedly that he does not know who actually shot Slysz.”

Cromartie’s lawyers appealed Treadwell’s ruling to the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals and the three-judge panel upheld Treadwell’s decision late Wednesday.

An appeal was still pending, meanwhile, before the U.S. Supreme Court.

Cromartie took the unusual step earlier of not filing a clemency petition with the State Board of Pardons and Paroles, the only authority in Georgia that can reduce a death sentence. His lawyers said he couldn’t in good faith ask for a life sentence because he maintains innocence.

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

Cromartie would be 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.


Follow Jeff Amy on Twitter at http://twitter.com/jeffamy.

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