The state Board of Pardons and Paroles today spared the life of a Taylor County murderer who was facing death by lethal injection this week. Three days after staying the execution of Daniel Greene, the five-member panel voted to commute his death sentence to life without parole, an unusual move that elicited mixed reactions from the tight-knit community. "We want to thank the board so much for their courage in this case," one of Greene's elated attorneys, Lindsay N. Bennett, said in a telephone interview from Atlanta. Greene, who had spent two decades on Georgia's death row and already ordered his last meal, received the news today and appeared to be in shock, Bennett said.
Greene, 42, was convicted in 1992 of fatally stabbing 20-year-old Bernard Walker, a former schoolmate who walked in on a robbery at a convenience store in Reynolds, Ga. Greene, whose attorneys claim he was under the influence of drugs, stabbed four other people the same night in a rampage that spanned three Middle Georgia counties.
Bob Bacle, the former Reynolds police chief who had addressed the paroles board this week on behalf of the victims and planned to attend the execution, condemned the decision, saying that justice had been subverted.
"What good was it to have a trial 21 years ago and then 21 years later five folks on the board of pardons can second-guess a jury?" Bacle said in an interview. "That's what we've got a system of justice for. What does this tell criminals out there coming along now?"
Former Taylor County Sheriff Nick Giles offered a more neutral reaction: "I don’t have a problem with it," said Giles, who had advocated capital punishment in the case when Greene was arrested. "The parole board, they know more about what the past 21 years has been like than I do."
The board did not immediately explain its decision. But interviews and court filings suggest the panel may have been moved by Greene's supporters, who said the stabbings were out of character. Greene had been a model inmate on death row, they said, receiving a reprimand only once -- for having too many stamps.
While the Taylor County community was scarred by the crimes, many had greeted the specter of execution with ambivalence, including some of Walker's family members. A petition with more than 500 signatures urging clemency was presented to the board, and a number of well-respected members of the community had spoken on Greene's behalf.
"One of the things that struck all of us about this case was the outpouring of support from the community," Bennett said. "It was a real testament to the community and to Daniel Greene's life before this tragedy."
One of Greene's more outspoken supporters had been Patty James Bentley, the chairwoman of the Taylor County Commission who is campaigning for a seat in the state House of Representatives. She wrote an emotional letter to the board asking it to spare Greene.
"I really just praise God," she said, "and I pray that Bernard's family will find some peace."
Walker's family couldn't immediately be reached for comment.
Mark Shelnutt, a Columbus attorney who prosecuted Greene, told the paroles board that a key factor in seeking capital punishment against Greene had been that life without parole was not an option for Georgia juries at the time.
"Obviously, life without parole is no slap on the hand," Shelnutt said. "He’s never going to get out of jail."
The board's decision marked just the fourth time it's granted clemency since 2002.