The crude artifacts of murder: a couple of old guns, shell casings, beer cans.
These objects helped convict the last three people scheduled for execution in Georgia: Jeff Cromartie, Jimmy Meders and Donnie Lance. All three denied committing their crimes, and all three asked for DNA testing of that evidence before they were to be strapped to a gurney and given a lethal injection.
Could the DNA left on the items provide scientific proof that police and prosecutors got the right man? Or could it poke holes into what seemed like a solid murder case? And did the state have an obligation to find out?
In all three cases, the state said no. Its attorneys persuaded judges to deny the testing, even though families of the condemned men said they’d pay for it. Those decisions led lawyers for the inmates to ask: What does the state have to lose?
“I’d like to know what the state is so scared of,” said Shawn Nolan, one of Cromartie’s lawyers. “Why are they afraid of the truth? This is sad and so disturbing.”
The state attorney general’s office, which takes the lead in opposing a death row inmate’s final appeals, won’t discuss the litigation strategies of specific cases, spokeswoman Katie Byrd said. She noted her office’s attorneys make decisions in conjunction with local prosecutors.
“History will show that our approach has been consistent,” she said. “We follow and enforce the law.”
Former Gov. Roy Barnes said the DNA testing should have been allowed. His policy, while in office 20 years ago, was to instruct the State Board of Pardons and Paroles to permit DNA testing when it was requested.
“I was not going to take the risk of an innocent man being executed,” Barnes said. “Even one mistake in a death case cannot be tolerated. There have just been too many cases where years later DNA exonerated someone.”
Two of the three men who asked for the DNA testing are already dead: Cromartie was executed in November, and Lance was put to death on Jan. 29. The third, Meders, was granted clemency hours before he was scheduled to die on Jan. 16.
In 1997, Cromartie was sent to death row for killing a 50-year-old clerk in South Georgia. While Cromartie admitted to taking part in the robbery, he insisted a co-defendant who testified against him pulled the trigger.
In December 2018, Cromartie submitted his request for DNA testing of a .25-caliber handgun, shell casings and some beer cans. His lawyers said the testing could prove once and for all who was telling the truth.
Last April, Thomas County Superior Court Judge Frank Horkan held a hearing to consider the request. But in September he issued an order denying the testing. Any result would not have changed the outcome at trial, and Cromartie had waited too long to make the request, Horkan ruled.