A change in policy that would make one of the state’s most secretive agencies more transparent overwhelmingly passed last week in the Georgia House.
Known as the parole board transparency act, House Bill 71 was approved 162-8 and is now being heard in committee within the Senate.
“It’s a major shift in state policy, and I think it’s one that’s long overdue,” said Rep. Kevin Tanner, R-Dawsonville.
Tanner authored the legislation following the parole board’s vote last summer to commute the death sentence of Tommy Lee Waldrip without sharing how or why it came to that decision.
Just as the murder of Keith Lloyd Evans shook the tight-knit Dawson County community 23 years before, the board’s decision to overturn Waldrip’s death sentence for his part in the slaying devastated family, friends and many who worked the case over the years, including Tanner, a deputy at the time.
“Seeing the family go through what they went through, just asking for an answer as to why the decision was reached,” Tanner said. “I just believed then and I believe now that whether you agree with the death penalty or not, that family deserves a better answer than ‘It’s a secret and we can’t discuss it.’”
In 1991, Waldrip, along with his son John Mark Waldrip and brother-in-law Howard Livingston, killed Evans, a young Dawsonville man who was set to testify against the younger Waldrip in an armed robbery case.
The three suspects were each charged in the murder and faced separate trials three years later. The proceedings were held in different counties to avoid a tainted jury from Dawson’s population, which was only about 10,000 at the time.
In October 1994, a jury found Tommy Lee Waldrip guilty of malice murder, two counts of felony murder, kidnapping with bodily injury and aggravated battery.
He also was convicted of five counts of aggravated assault, theft by taking of a motor vehicle, arson in the second degree, intimidating a witness and concealing a death.
In addition, he was found guilty of possession of a firearm by a convicted felon and two counts of possession of a firearm in the commission of a felony. He was sentenced to death.
In separate trials, John Mark Waldrip and Livingston were sentenced to life in prison for their involvement.
“The pardons and parole legislation has been very important to me personally,” Tanner said. “Hopefully, we will get it passed, and I look forward to seeing the governor sign this into law.”
In addition to opening transparency in parole board decisions, Tanner’s legislation tackles another secretive practice that, for the first time in 70 years, would bring more transparency to the parole process.
“Pardons were being granted to individuals who were sex offenders and violent criminals. Their gun rights were being restored without the victims having any knowledge that a pardon was even being considered or granted,” Tanner said.
“Then when they asked why, they were told it was a secret. They deserve a better answer to that.”
Tanner said he’s confident the legislation will pass.
“I worked on this for a long time and had a lot of help from a lot of people in the House on both sides,” he said. “There will be some minor changes. There always are, but I’m pretty confident we’re going to be able to get the bill passed.”
Once it passes, Tanner said he plans to request that the governor sign it into law in Dawson County.