THOMAS COUNTY, Ga. — The Georgia Supreme Court granted a stay of execution to Ray “Jeff” Cromartie on procedural grounds.
The stay is provisional and focuses on whether the execution order was properly filed earlier this month by in Thomas County Superior Court while the Supreme Court had jurisdiction over the case.
Cromartie had been set to be executed at 7 p.m. today by a lethal injection of pentobarbitol, but he was awaiting word on last-minute appeals.
The 52-year-old has been hoping for a court to order new DNA testing, which he said could prove it was actually his accomplice who killed store clerk Richard Slysz, 50, during a robbery attempt in April 1994.
The accomplice, Corey Clark, testified at trial that Cromartie had pulled the trigger that morning in Thomasville. Clark, who couldn’t be reached for comment, has been free from prison for more than a decade.
After 25 years of failed court fights, Cromartie seemed resigned in recent visits with family.
Stepbrother Eric Major talked to him through a metal screen at the Georgia Diagnostic and Classification Prison outside Jackson, where Cromartie was destined to be strapped to a gurney in the death house. “He was comforting us,” Major told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution last week. “He was never a very emotional person, but he was always a caring person.”
Major didn’t need to square the image of the convicted murderer as a caring person, because he never believed his stepbrother was guilty.
The brothers grew up mostly in the Houston, Texas, area, where they had little supervision at home. “We kind of were raising ourselves,” Major said.
Cromartie seemed to Major like an average-enough kid with a job at McDonald’s and a love for music. Cromartie wanted to be like their neighbor, an engineer, but Major doesn’t think it was so much the profession Cromartie wanted to emulate, just the act of wearing a suit to work.
The stepbrothers got into trouble here and there before Major’s mother brought him to live with her in Alabama. At the mother’s urging, Major went to college.
Cromartie, meanwhile, joined the Army and got kicked out for reasons he never disclosed to Major. Cromartie ended up in Thomasville, his mom’s hometown near the Florida border, and Major stayed in Alabama, where he would later become a state representative.
Cromartie didn’t deny involvement in the robbery attempt at Junior Food Store.
Cromartie and Clark were driven to the store by Cromartie’s brother, Thad Lucas. Lucas said he waited in the car behind the store while Cromartie and Clark went around to the front. Cromartie had convinced Lucas to give them a ride to steal some beer, according to Lucas. When Cromartie and Clark fled the store, they were toting two 12-packs of Budweiser. From where the car was parked, Lucas said he couldn’t see inside the store, so he didn’t realize the clerk was shot until later that night, when Clark pulled him aside and said Cromartie had killed the man.
In the days to come, Lucas heard police were also accusing Cromartie of shooting a different clerk, Dan Wilson, who’d taken a bullet to the head during a robbery and survived. Police said Cromartie acted alone in Wilson’s shooting. Lucas never asked Cromartie if he was guilty. “Some things you just don’t ask,” Lucas, 47, told the AJC.
Lucas and Clark testified at the trial, avoiding the death penalty and murder charges. Lucas and Clark were released from prison in the early 2000s.
Cromartie met with the state Board of Pardons and Paroles last week to once again deny that he killed Slysz. On Tuesday, the board declined to grant the inmate a stay.
Various courts also rejected the request, even after Slysz’s daughter endorsed it. Elizabeth Legette said in a letter released by Cromartie’s attorneys that it would be “senseless” to execute the man without testing clothing and shell casings from the two shootings to determine whether Cromartie killed her father.
Generally speaking, Georgia’s party to a crime law could have made Cromartie eligible for the death penalty whether he pulled the trigger or not. But his attorneys said that law didn’t apply because prosecutors explicitly argued at trial that Cromartie fired the fatal shots.
No members of Slysz’s family have spoken out against the DNA testing or called for Cromartie to be executed. Wilson, the victim who survived, however, very much wanted Cromartie executed, according to retired Thomasville police detective Melven Johnson. Johnson said the evidence from both shootings left no doubt that Cromartie killed Slysz and shot Wilson.
After Major’s last visit to the prison, he thought of how his path had diverged from his stepbrother’s many years earlier, when Cromartie headed for prison and Major headed for the Alabama Statehouse. “But for the grace of God,” Major said, “I would be Jeff.”
Major has decided not to attend the execution. Cromartie had asked him and other relatives not to come, which Major took as further evidence that his stepbrother is a caring person.
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