ATLANTA - The Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles commuted the death sentence of convicted killer Samuel David Crowe on Thursday, just hours before his scheduled execution.
Crowe will now serve life without parole for killing Joseph Pala, a Douglas County lumber store manager, in 1998. Crowe, 47, had already eaten what would have been his last meal and was on suicide watch when the board's decision was announced about two hours before he was scheduled to be executed at the state prison in Jackson.
The parole board did not explain its decision. Since 1995, the board has considered 24 death sentences and commuted only three. A spokeswoman said the last time before Thursday was January 2004.
Crowe's lawyer, Ann Fort, said her client was shocked by the decision. 'We'll certainly take that,' she recalled Crowe telling her.
Earlier Thursday, Fort told the parole board that her client had no prior convictions before the murder and that he had been a model prisoner. She also presented a box of testimonials from his supporters.
Fort said she thought the board was swayed by Crowe's sincere remorse. While he wasn't allowed to attend the board's hearing, he said in a letter: 'What I did to Joseph Pala is not something that I have ever been able to forget, or push back into the recesses of my mind.'
Douglas County District Attorney David McDade called the decision 'an unbelievable blow to the victim's family.' He said they were very upset.
'They waited 20 years for justice and this is not justice,' he said.
Crowe was sentenced to die in 1989 after pleading guilty to robbing and killing Pala, 39, a manager at a store where Crowe used to work.
The medical examiner found that Pala was shot, beaten with a crowbar and struck with a can of white paint that spilled on his face. Fort said Crowe had stopped using cocaine and was in severe withdrawal the night of the murder.
One of Crowe's supporters called him 'a peacemaker' among the inmates in the prison.
'He was the only person I dealt with on death row in 16 years who I felt like if they released him that morning he would never get in any more trouble and he could make a contribution to society,' Jack Bedsole, a retired corrections officer, said in a letter.
McDade said he still remembers the gruesome scene.
'He horribly, tragically, brutally murdered a man whose family has suffered to this day,' McDade said. 'That he feels remorse today doesn't diminish what he did to Mr. Pala with one iota.'
Crowe would have become the third inmate to die since the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of lethal injection, the most common execution method. Georgia's execution of William Earl Lynd on May 6 ended a seven-month halt on capital punishment across the country. Mississippi executed an inmate Wednesday night.