ATLANTA (AP) — A Georgia man sentenced to die Wednesday has launched another last-ditch appeal aimed at supporting his claims of innocence, asking a federal judge to stop his execution and order DNA testing on crime scene evidence.
In court papers filed Friday in Valdosta, Cromartie’s lawyers say such tests would support their claims that another man shot and killed Thomasville convenience store clerk Richard Slysz in an April 1994 robbery.
Cromartie says co-defendant Corey Clark pulled the trigger. Cromartie was convicted under Georgia law for malice murder, meaning prosecutors said he was directly responsible for the death. Cromartie’s conviction could be overturned if he could prove Clark shot Slysz.
As part of Cromartie’s appeal, his stepbrother Thaddeus Lucas now claims he overheard Clark admitting to the killing to Gary Young, a cousin of Cromartie who owned the gun used in the shooting.
“I know that some of my own past statements and being quiet about this helped hide the truth,” Lucas said in a sworn statement. “But I keep hearing that Jeff Cromartie is the shooter and I know that is probably not true. I don’t know for certain what happened that night because I wasn’t in the store, but I know what I heard Corey say about it to Gary — that he shot the clerk.”
Lawyers also cite a statement that Lucas made to the Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles in 1997 that Clark shot Slysz.
“No reasonable juror would have convicted Mr. Cromartie if presented with Mr. Lucas’s testimony that Mr. Clark — the star witness against Mr. Cromartie — himself confessed to having shot Mr. Slysz,” lawyers for Cromartie wrote.
Lucas recently told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution he didn’t know who pulled the trigger, and a lawyer for the state, in a reply filed Monday, discounted Lucas’ statement, saying he doesn’t actually know what happened inside the store and that the claims don’t rise to the level for the court to overrule its previous decisions and re-examine the evidence.
“As this evidence lacks reliability and there still remains overwhelming evidence of Cromartie’s guilt, Cromartie has not shown he is ‘actually innocent’ of the Junior Food Store crimes and therefore not presented the Court with an ‘extraordinary circumstance,’” wrote Sabrina Graham on behalf of the Georgia attorney general’s office.
Cromartie’s lawyers argue that DNA tests of shell casings and other evidence could point toward Clark as the murderer. A judge in September declined their request for DNA testing and for a new trial, and the Georgia Supreme Court upheld that ruling. Federal courts also declined to order DNA testing.
Relatives of both Slysz and Cromartie are calling for DNA testing. Elizabeth Legette, Slysz’s daughter, wrote this year to prosecutors and then the state Supreme Court that she feared Cromartie may not have shot her father.
“My father’s death was senseless,” Legette wrote to prosecutors in August. “Executing another man would also be senseless, especially if he may not have shot my father.”
Cromartie was originally scheduled to be put to death on Oct. 30. But the Georgia Supreme Court issued an order that morning temporarily halting the execution and ultimately found that the execution order was void because of a legal technicality. The state quickly sought a new execution order and the lethal injection was rescheduled for Wednesday.
Prosecutors say that before Cromartie shot Slysz, he shot a clerk at the Madison Street Deli in the face, leaving after failing to open the cash register. The clerk, Dan Wilson, survived but couldn’t describe who shot him and surveillance camera footage was unclear. Cromartie denies shooting Wilson.
A few days later, on April 10, 1994, Cromartie and Clark asked Lucas to drive them to a different store to steal beer, testimony showed. Lucas parked on a nearby street and waited while the other two entered the Junior Food Store.
Cromartie shot Slysz twice in the head after they entered the store, prosecutors said. Cromartie and Clark were unable to open the cash register and fled after Cromartie grabbed two 12-packs of beer.
A friend testified that Cromartie later bragged about shooting the clerk.
Cromartie would be the third prisoner executed in Georgia this year.