Update: Execution of Taylor County inmate stayed by paroles board

The state Board of Pardons and Paroles on Tuesday stayed the execution of Daniel Greene, a Taylor County prisoner who had been scheduled to die by lethal injection this week for fatally stabbing Bernard Walker, his former schoolmate, in 1991.

After a clemency hearing that lasted several hours, the board said in a statement that it needed more time “to examine the substance of claims offered by Greene’s representatives.” The board, which has the sole authority in Georgia to commute death sentences, noted that the stay can be lifted at any time, at which point the five-member panel will announce its decision.

The board has granted three stays since 2008 — including one to Troy Anthony Davis in 2007 — but clemency was later denied in all three cases and the inmates were executed, said Steve Hayes, the board’s director of communications. The board last commuted a case to life without parole in 2008.

At the same time the board was considering Greene’s fate, Taylor County Sheriff Jeff Watson was visiting with his former high school football teammate on Georgia’s death row. Watson spent about an hour with Greene and said he left feeling “blessed.”

“You could tell he was resolved to the fact that he had done wrong. He was being punished and it wasn’t anybody’s fault but his,” Watson said in a telephone interview. “He’s got incredible faith. All he wanted to talk about was forgiveness.”

The board’s decision offered Greene new hope just hours after a federal judge denied a lengthy motion by his attorneys to stay the execution. The court rejected a flurry of last-minute defense arguments, including claims that Greene was improperly denied a mental health expert at trial.

Greene, 42, was convicted of murder in 1992 after a trial that was moved to metro Atlanta because of pre-trial publicity. He admitted to law enforcement that he stabbed Walker in the chest after robbing a convenience store in Reynolds, Ga.

Greene stabbed four other people the same night in a knifing spree that spanned three Middle Georgia counties.

At trial, Greene testified that he could not remember killing Walker or confessing to law enforcement officials after his capture in Warner Robins, Ga. His defense attorneys have since contended that Greene took an unusually large dose of crack cocaine and may have inadvertently been under the influence of another drug after smoking a cigarette he received from an acquaintance shortly before the stabbings.

The paroles board heard from about 10 representatives of Greene, “mostly teachers and preachers” who said that Greene’s violent rampage was uncharacteristic of the young man they’d known as a gentle giant, said Mark Shelnutt, the Columbus attorney who as a young prosecutor sat second chair to District Attorney Doug Pullen during Greene’s trial. Shelnutt said he addressed the board at length about the decision-making process prosecutors used at the time to determine whether to seek capital punishment in a case. “Most of the people that testified were people that knew him, like school teachers that talked about what a great kid he was in high school and also what a great kid Bernard Walker was and that it was a tragic situation,” Shelnutt said, “but obviously they didn’t think he should get the death penalty.”

Shelnutt said board members were attentive and seemed to be taking their decision seriously. “I left there thinking that he has a chance,” Shelnutt said of Greene. “I think they really want to do the right thing.”

One supporter of Greene was Patty James Bentley, a Taylor County Commissioner who wrote a letter to the board requesting it commute Greene’s sentence to life without parole. Bentley, who is running for state representative, recalled a time after she became pregnant at age 15 when she considered dropping out of high school because of the ridicule she was facing from her classmates.

“All throughout that year, Daniel always talked to me, told me not to listen to those crazy people, and did things to try and bring my spirits up when I felt down,” she wrote. “He made me feel like I was somebody.

“... I don’t know where I would be this day if Daniel had not reached out to me and treated me with kindness and dignity,” she added.

Walker’s family members couldn’t be reached for comment Tuesday. District Attorney Julia Slater did not return messages seeking comment. Greene’s attorneys also did not respond to an interview request.

During his prison visit, Watson said Greene hugged his neck and seemed “very remorseful.” There was more talk of football than the impending execution.

According to Watson, Greene is at peace regardless of the paroles board’s decision.

“He said it was in God’s hands, and God was his maker and whatever He had for him he accepted,” the sheriff said. “He knew he would be in a better place either way.”