Condemned Ga. inmate pushes for DNA test he says will prove innocence

    The Georgia Supreme Court Wednesday issued a stay of execution for Ray Jefferson Cromartie, who was scheduled to receive the death penalty tonight. Contributed by the Georgia Department of Corrections.

    A final-hour plea to be spared from the death penalty is set to be heard Tuesday as a state board considers whether to halt the execution of a 52-year-old man convicted of killing a store clerk in Thomasville more than two decades ago.

    Ray Jefferson Cromartie, a Thomasville native, has maintained his innocence through years of legal appeals, claiming he was not the gunman who shot dead Richard Slysz, 50, at the convenience store where Slysz worked.

    Without a last-minute reprieve, Cromartie is scheduled to die by lethal injection at 7 p.m. Wednesday at the Georgia Diagnostic and Classification Prison in Jackson, where the state’s death row inmates are housed.

    Cromartie’s attorneys will take his case before the state Board of Pardons and Paroles, which will hear arguments for and against clemency behind closed doors today. The board has the authority to commute Cromartie’s sentence to life with or without the possibility of parole, or let the death sentence stand. The panel could also decide to temporarily delay the execution.

    Ray Jefferson Cromartie is scheduled to be executed Wednesday evening for a 1994 murder in Thomas County. Photo from the Georgia Department of Corrections

    The board will weigh Cromartie’s fate as his attorneys continue pushing to conduct DNA tests on pieces of evidence like clothing and shell casings, which they believe could prove his innocence.

    The hearing comes days after the state Supreme Court unanimously voted Friday to dismiss Cromartie’s request to stay his execution. The court also denied his request to hear an appeal of a lower court’s decision to deny a request for DNA testing and a new trial.

    Slysz’s daughter, Elizabeth Legette, has also called for DNA tests. In a July letter, she urged the state’s Supreme Court to allow tests since questions hovering over the case “could be answered by DNA testing.”

    “My father’s death was senseless,” Legette wrote. “Executing another man would also be senseless, especially if he may not have shot my father.”

    Southern Judicial Circuit District Attorney Brad Shealy, though, said he sees a stall tactic in those calls for DNA testing. It would be meaningless, Shealy said, since it’s been proven someone besides Cromartie loaded the gun and since his clothes were recovered days after the shooting. Granting a stay of execution would only delay justice, he said.

    “He’s had every possible appeal he could have,” Shealy said by phone last week. “I think it’s time the verdict of the citizens of Thomas County be carried out.”

    Slysz was shot in the head twice during a robbery at the Junior Food Store in Thomasville on April 10, 1994. Three days prior, another store clerk was shot in the fact at a different convenience nearby but survived. Witnesses fingered Cromartie as the gunman in both shootings. He was found guilty three years later on several felony counts, including aggravated battery, armed robbery and murder.

    The killing shook the usually quiet Thomasville area, Shealy said. Hold-ups were rare at the time. Homicides nearly non-existent.

    “That was pretty serious stuff that people wouldn’t expect to happen back then,” Shealy, who has worked in the district attorney’s office for three decades, said by phone Wednesday. “It had a pretty good impact on the community.”

    Incarceration capped a difficult life for Cromartie, court records show. He drifted from city to city in several different states after leaving his mother and a series of violent stepfathers as a teenager. Guilt over the death of his toddler brother in a house fire hounded him into adulthood. His mother’s drinking during pregnancy caused brain damage and “a diminished ability to reason,” says a court motion his attorneys filed in 2016.

    Cromartie’s lawyers contend he did not pull the trigger of the gun that killed Slysz. They argue his cousin, Gary Young, who claimed to have handed Cromartie the gun the night of the murder, changed his story and denied giving Cromartie the gun in a sworn deposition in 2012.

    Cromartie would become the 75th person executed in Georgia since the state reinstituted the death penalty in 1976 and the third person this year.

    Cromartie has requested a final meal of steak, lobster, macaroni and cheese, cube steak, rice and gravy, steak and cheese sandwich, double cheeseburger, fries, side of ranch dressing, strawberry milkshake and layered cake with white icing.

    Deputy Editor Jill Nolin contributed to this report. 

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    Beau Evans
    Beau Evans has covered local and state government and breaking news in New Orleans and California. He’s reported on immigration issues, the threat of rising seas to coastal areas, public safety and hurricanes. At The Times-Picayune in New Orleans, Evans detailed the critical role government plays to ensure that people in a community have access to clean water and other public needs. In 2018, his investigative reporting revealed top officials at New Orleans’ cash-poor water utility dealt themselves huge raises, prompting several to resign. Evans’ prior reporting was in West Marin north of San Francisco for The Point Reyes Light. Evans is an Atlanta native who graduated with honors from The Lovett School and is an honors graduate of North Carolina’s Davidson College.