Georgia prepares to execute man for killing 22 years ago

Robert Earl Butts Jr., Robert Butts Jr.
The Associated Press

JACKSON, Ga. (AP) — The Georgia Supreme Court on Friday denied a stay of execution for a man convicted of killing an off-duty prison guard who gave him a ride outside a Walmart store 22 years ago.

Robert Earl Butts Jr., 40, is scheduled to die at 7 p.m. Friday by injection of the compounded barbiturate pentobarbital at the state prison in Jackson. Butts and Marion Wilson Jr., 41, were both convicted of murder and armed robbery in the March 1996 slaying of 24-year-old Donovan Corey Parks.

Juries in separate trials found sufficient evidence to sentence both men to death because Parks was killed during the commission of an aggravating felony, armed robbery. Wilson’s case is still pending in the courts.

Butts had been scheduled to die Thursday, but won a short reprieve when the state Board of Pardons and Paroles issued a stay Wednesday to allow it extra time to weigh Butt’s clemency request. The board, which is the only authority in Georgia with the power to commute a death sentence, voted Thursday not to spare his life.

The execution was rescheduled for Friday. Butts, who still has other court challenges pending, requested a last meal of bacon cheeseburger, ribeye steak, six chicken tenders, french fries, cheesecake and strawberry lemonade.

He would be the second inmate executed by Georgia this year. Carlton Gary, convicted of raping and killing three older women and known as the “stocking strangler,” was put to death in March.

Prosecutors said Butts and Wilson targeted Parks after standing behind him in the checkout line of a Walmart store in the central Georgia city of Milledgeville. They asked Parks for a ride, and he agreed.

A short distance from the store, one of the men showed Parks a shotgun and ordered him to pull over. Parks was dragged from the car and killed by a single shot to the head. Investigators later found a shotgun under Wilson’s bed. A witness said Butts had given the shotgun to Wilson to hold after the killing.

Authorities said Butts and Wilson were gang members who had gone looking for a victim when they drove Butts’ car to the Walmart store.

His attorneys insisted in a clemency application to the parole board that Butts wasn’t the shooter. A jailhouse witness, Horace May, who testified at Butts’ trial that Butts confessed to being the shooter, has now signed a sworn statement saying he made the story up out of sympathy for Wilson, whom he also met in jail, Butts’ lawyers wrote. Wilson also told May that the pair had agreed to steal Parks’ car but that Butts believed they would release Parks, according to the statement.

Butts’ lawyers also argued to the parole board at the clemency hearing that evidence in the case indicates that Wilson consistently had possession of the gun used to kill Parks. They also said there’s no evidence that Butts was a member of a gang or that Parks’ killing was gang-related. They wrote that the fact that the two tried to sell the car at a chop shop shows the crime was financially motivated.

In a flurry of recent court filings, Butts’ lawyers presented several reasons why they believe he shouldn’t be executed.

Given the nature of the crime, they argued, he likely wouldn’t be sentenced to death if he were prosecuted today. They also argued that his death sentence was “grossly disproportionate” and that he should be resentenced.

They also argued his sentence was unconstitutional because although he was 18 at the time of the killing, his mental age and maturity lagged behind his actual age. Executing him would be like executing someone who was younger than 18 when his crime was committed, and that’s not lawful, they said.

His attorneys have also consistently said his trial lawyers were ineffective and failed to thoroughly investigate his case or to present mitigating evidence, including a childhood characterized by abuse and neglect, that could have spared him the death penalty.