UPDATED Nov. 14, 7 a.m.: Ray "Jeff" Cromartie was executed Wednesday by a lethal injection of pentobarbital and was pronounced dead at 10:59 p.m. in a Georgia state prison. He made no last statement, but he had maintained his innocence for more than 20 years.
A Georgia man on death row is set to be executed by lethal injection Wednesday night, despite repeatedly asking that the state examine crucial DNA evidence that could exonerate him.
Ray “Jeff” Cromartie, 52, admits he was involved in a convenience store robbery near the Georgia-Florida border in 1994 that left one clerk dead, but he has long maintained he wasn’t the one to actually fire the gun that killed Richard Slysz. He says his co-defendant, Corey Clark, shot Slysz, and that DNA testing on both clothing and bullet casings might prove that claim. One of Cromartie’s co-defendants also believes Clark might’ve shot Slysz, and the victim’s daughter has asked for DNA testing as well.
Since Cromartie maintains his innocence, he refuses to ask the state for clemency. He also refused the original 1997 plea deal offered to him by prosecutors, since it would’ve required him to plead guilty.
Back in the late 1990s, both Clark and the getaway driver for the robbery, Thad Lucas, avoided murder charges and the death penalty because they agreed to testify for the state. In exchange, they received shorter sentences. Meanwhile, Clark fingered Cromartie as the shooter, although there was no physical evidence connecting him to the murder. Cromartie was convicted. Lucas and Clark both served prison time but were released in the early 2000s, according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
Although Clark has been largely out of the public eye since he was accused of violating his parole back in 2015, Lucas came forward in an affidavit this week to allege that he once overheard Clark confess, and said he couldn’t be sure Cromartie was the shooter after all. (Cromartie and Lucas are half-brothers but were raised separately.)
“I keep hearing that Jeff Cromartie is the shooter, and I know that is probably not true,” Lucas wrote. He said he didn’t come forward earlier because he didn’t believe it would change anything, but then news coverage compelled him to speak up.
Slysz’s daughter, Elizabeth Legette, has also said she supports DNA testing to avoid another “senseless” death.
“My father’s death was senseless. Executing another man would also be senseless, especially if he may not have shot my father,” she wrote in a July 16 letter released by Cromartie’s defense team.
Cromartie’s attorneys also filed a last-ditch appeal Friday, noting that Lucas told the Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles in 1997 that Clark — not Cromartie — shot Slysz. Lawyers from the state, though, have argued that Lucas doesn’t know what happened inside the store the night of the shooting — he was waiting in the car while Clark ran inside with Cromartie — and that the claims don’t rise to the standard where the court would re-examine evidence or hold a new trial. Already, a judge decided in September that attorneys didn’t have to test DNA evidence, and that ruling was upheld by the Georgia Supreme Court this month. Southern Judicial Circuit Senior Judge Frank Horkan, who originally presided over Cromartie’s death penalty trial, also said in September that Cromartie waited too long to ask for testing, and that the testing wouldn’t make a difference.
Cromartie could be still executed even if DNA evidence were to prove he didn’t pull the trigger due to Georgia’s law of parties, which holds people responsible even if they were involved in a crime and not the primary instigator of a murder.
For now, Cromartie is scheduled to die by lethal injection at 7 p.m. in Georgia’s state prison in Jackson. He would be the third prisoner executed in Georgia this year, and at least the second high-profile execution this month of a black man who claims he could be exonerated by DNA evidence. Rodney Reed, a Texas man on death row who claims he’s innocent of the murder he’s accused of, is set to be executed Nov. 20. According to the Innocence Project, a legal organization that’s representing Reed in his appeal to survive, DNA evidence has exonerated at least 20 people on death row.
Cover: A guard looks on at right as prisoners move through the state prison Thursday, March 3, 2011, in Jackson, Ga. (AP Photo/David Goldman)