AJC Watchdog: First Alert

Keeping watch on those who hold the public trust and money

Secrecy persists as parole board denies Gissendaner clemency request

Did any member of Georgia’s Board of Pardons and Paroles vote to show mercy on death row inmate Kelly Gissendaner?

We’ll probably never know. It’s a state secret.

The parole board, which has sole authority over clemency requests, held its second hearing this year on whether to cancel or delay executing Gissendaner for her role in her husband’s 1997 murder.

Today’s hearing, like the one in February, was held behind closed doors.

As in February, the members’ deliberations were outside public view.

And, then as now, the board won't say how its five members voted on Gissendaner's request. It keeps no public record of individual votes.

However, the General Assembly this spring took a small step toward requiring greater transparency by the board. For the first time, the board will have to make public a statement explaining its clemency vote. It also must now notify crime victims when offenders apply for a pardon or parole.

Here's the explanation from the board's news release on its decision today:

"In reaching its decision, the Board thoroughly reviewed all information and documents pertaining to the case, including the latest information presented by Gissendaner’s representatives. To date, the Board has reviewed the parole case file on Gissendaner and three clemency applications in the case: the original application and two applications requesting the Board reconsider its decision to deny clemency. Gissendaner’s conviction and sentence have been upheld throughout the appeals process. Gissendaner’s appeal to the United States Supreme Court was denied on October 6, 2014."

Lawmakers initially proposed requiring the board to publicly account for its votes. That provision was deleted shortly before the legislative session ended.

The legislation followed a series of Atlanta Journal-Constitution articles that revealed the board's secrecy, even in dealing with crime victims.

With legal appeals concluding, the parole board may have been Gissendaner’s last hope to avoid execution. Georgia is one of five states in which a panel such as the parole board has the sole authority to decide clemency requests (and two of those states have recently abolished the death penalty).

In 13 states, the governor has the power to grant clemency. In 17 others, the governor may do so after receiving recommendations from a parole board or other advisory body.

Georgia’s governor appoints members to the parole board, but otherwise has no role in clemency proceedings. Legally, he has no more right than any other Georgian to find out how those board members vote.

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