Georgia parole board's secret votes forgive sex offenders


Barry Davis stood before a judge and admitted to a horrific crime: aggravated sodomy of a 6-year-old girl. Davis served two years in prison and eight on probation, and his name was to live forever on an ignominious list: Georgia’s sex offender registry.

But suddenly last year, all was forgiven.

Georgia’s parole board granted Davis an unconditional pardon, recognizing his restored reputation and absolving, if not exactly exonerating, him of his crime. The board did so without notifying Davis’ victim, her family, or the prosecutor and judge who sent him to prison. And now Davis, like at least one other pardoned child molester from Georgia, says he no longer has to comply with the state’s restrictions on sex offenders.

Greg McConnell, who prosecuted Davis, twice asked the parole board to explain the pardon. Each time, it refused. Finally, McConnell threatened to lodge a complaint with the governor.

“Go ahead,” a board attorney shot back, according to McConnell. “We don’t work for the governor. You’re wasting your time.”

Davis’ case underscores the near-absolute autonomy exercised by Georgia’s Board of Pardons and Paroles, a government agency that is not accountable to legislators, judges, or even the governor who appoints its members.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported last month that the board classifies almost all material in its files as “confidential state secrets.” The board does not meet in public to consider cases. It announces no justification for its decisions.

Without oversight or transparency, the board quietly restored the firearms rights of more than 1,400 felons in six years, the newspaper reported. From 2008 to 2013, the proportion of violent offenders regaining gun privileges spiked from 6 percent to 31 percent.

The five board members, who earn a base salary of $135,000 a year, declined to be interviewed.

In a brief statement, issued after weeks of requests for comment, the board said last week that it values input from crime victims, prosecutors and law enforcement officials. The board said it would “continue to address concerns and strengthen communications with those groups, one on one.”

The statement did not address how those groups could communicate with the board on pardons and other matters that it keeps secret. Sheriffs and prosecutors across the state complain that when they make contact with the board, they encounter a patronizing attitude from its members and staff.

Dawson County Sheriff Billy Carlisle was dumbfounded this summer when the board commuted Death Row inmate Tommy Lee Waldrip’s sentence to life in prison. The decision came hours before Waldrip was scheduled to be executed for the 1991 murder of Keith Evans of Dawsonville. When Carlisle asked for an explanation, the board refused. When he got the Georgia Sheriffs Association to formally make the request, the board refused, again.

“They just say the record’s classified and won’t give you anything,” Carlisle said. “I don’t understand it, myself.”

As McConnell, the chief assistant district attorney in Chatham County, put it: “We’re supposed to be on the same team.”

In Davis’ case, the board apparently relied only on information that Davis himself assembled.

So the board didn’t hear about his victim’s years of psychological therapy. It didn’t know the girl’s mother says Davis told her he apologized for the abuse in hopes of avoiding prison. And it learned nothing about Davis’ efforts, as late as 2011, to persuade the victim to claim the crime never happened.

“I could not believe,” McConnell said, “that if they had known all the details, they would have granted him a pardon.”

A DISTURBING STORY

Monday, Jan. 17, 1994. Schools in Savannah were closed for the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday. A 6-year-old girl sat in a car with her 12-year-old brother while their mother ran a quick errand. Their conversation took a disturbing turn.

“Poo-poo tastes bad,” the girl said, according to court records.

Her brother asked, How would you know?

She didn’t have the vocabulary to say it, but she made clear to her brother that Barry Davis, a member of her family, had forced her to perform oral sex. As soon as their mother returned to the car, the brother had the girl repeat the story. That set in motion events that, six months later, resulted in Davis’ arrest.

Davis, 35 at the time, was an Air Force veteran, a staff sergeant in the Georgia National Guard. He had an accounting degree from what was then Savannah State College and was working for a security firm. He had never been arrested.

At first, Davis denied abusing the girl. But as the police interrogated him, court records show, his story evolved.

The girl had acted in a “sexually suggestive” manner, Davis told police. He also said he has an unusually large penis and, while holding the girl in his lap to fix her hair, it may have “accidentally” slipped out of his shorts. The girl reminded him of sexually inexperienced women he had encountered, Davis told detectives, and he became aroused.

Davis pleaded guilty in Chatham County Superior Court in August 1995. Arguing for probation rather than prison time, his lawyer described the abuse as “an isolated incident.” Davis’ mother, Ruth, suggested he was not at fault. “The baby is very playful, or was at that time,” Ruth Davis testified, “and something might have happened to that effect.”

Unmoved, the judge sentenced Davis to 10 years: two in prison, followed by eight on probation.

In court, Davis said that when the abuse came to light, “I apologized to the whole family.”

The victim’s mother confronted Davis afterward, she said in a recent interview. Davis, she said, told her he had no reason to apologize.

“He said he was only saying what we wanted to hear.”

SEEKING FORGIVENESS

Georgia’s parole board bestows several types of pardons. One restores the gun rights a felon loses at the time of conviction. Another lets offenders hold public office and serve on juries.

The pardon that Davis wanted is a statement of official forgiveness. It recognizes an offender’s attempts to atone for the crime, as well as his or her standing in the community. It does not, however, erase the conviction from the record. Nor does it indicate innocence. But pardoned felons may tell potential employers or others that the state considers them reformed, upstanding citizens.

As Davis prepared his pardon application, he extended an unlikely lunch invitation: to his victim. By then in her early 20s, she accepted.

The lunch was “a ruse to get her into an attorney’s office,” the victim’s mother said recently. Davis’ lawyer questioned the victim, apparently trying to coax her into recanting her accusation of nearly two decades earlier.

“She was completely caught off guard,” the victim’s mother said.

But she refused to change her story, her mother said, and told the lawyer that Davis “made her fellate him.”

The victim declined to be interviewed. The Journal-Constitution’s policy is to not identify victims of sex crimes.

Even without the victim’s help, Davis moved ahead with his pardon application.

“I think he perfected his story,” the victim’s mother said, “that she was being influenced by other adults … who had it in for him.”

Whatever case he made in writing to the parole board is confidential, the board says. But Davis says he got three acquaintances to attest to his good character.

“I have been a stalwart citizen – before I was accused, during my accusal, and after,” Davis said in a brief telephone interview.

“There was no real, solid evidence to say I was guilty,” he said. “I was looking forward to a trial, but my lawyer suggested I make a plea. Ignorantly, I did. What they actually accused me of, I was not actually guilty of.”

He declined to elaborate.

The parole board never notified the victim, her mother or anyone else that it was considering a pardon application from Davis.

Following its normal procedure, it held no hearing on the case. Board members passed his file from one to the next until three – a majority – reached the same decision. No public record exists of which board members reviewed the file or how they voted or whether any members dissented. Nothing – no written decision, no transcript – offers any clue as to how the board came to its conclusion.

All that is known is this: On Feb. 13, 2013, the parole board approved a single-page document declaring that Barry Craig Davis, a “law-abiding” and “fully rehabilitated” citizen, had been pardoned by the state of Georgia.

‘STATE SECRET’

After he got out of prison in July 1997, Davis had to notify the Chatham County sheriff any time he moved to a new address. As a sex offender, he could be forbidden from living or even working in certain places simply because children happened to congregate nearby.

The pardon, however, says Davis was “unconditionally, fully” forgiven. All “disabilities” imposed by his conviction had been lifted.

Davis saw an opportunity.

“The wording seemed to be extremely suggestive in my favor,” Davis said. By “every logical assessment,” he said, “a ‘pardon’ would mean that a person is pardoned.”

So early last year, when Davis moved from Savannah to Charlotte, North Carolina, he did not notify authorities in either place. Chatham County sheriff’s deputies couldn’t reach Davis by phone until about three months later. That is when he claimed his pardon excused him from the sex offender registry.

This was news to McConnell, the prosecutor. He had no idea Davis had applied for a pardon, much less that the parole board had approved it. But when he asked to see Davis’ file, a board lawyer responded, “What public interest would be served?”

McConnell and the board volleyed over the file through the summer of 2013. McConnell repeatedly asked the board to declassify it; the board repeatedly said no.

The closest McConnell got to an explanation of the basis for Davis’ pardon came in a brief letter from a paralegal on the board’s staff.

“The board,” she wrote, “uses all information at its disposal.”

When a board lawyer scoffed at his threat to tell the governor, McConnell decided to issue a subpoena for the file. The parole board decided to fight.

At a court hearing on Feb. 24 this year, McConnell said he needed the board’s documents to prosecute Davis for failing to comply with the sex offender law. He voiced a new suspicion: that the board was complicit in what he considered Davis’ flight from official supervision.

The public, McConnell said, had a right to know “how cavalier the board can be in granting pardons.”

Assistant Attorney General Rebecca Dobras, representing the board, argued that turning over Davis’ file could expose “private conversations” among board members.

“We really just don’t see how what the board did to … decide why to pardon him has anything to do with this,” Dobras said.

Chatham County Superior Court Judge Timothy Walmsley told the lawyers he was disturbed to learn the parole board could pardon someone convicted of so serious a crime — and that it could, in effect, overrule the judge who imposed the sentence.

“The idea that there could be a body out there that just wipes that out, without involving the participants at the time, on many levels is frustrating to the court,” Walmsley said. “I don’t see how some of the basic information … can be deemed a state secret.”

However, he said, the law shrouds the parole board in secrecy. He said he had no choice: the documents would remain secret.

The same day, 200 miles away in Moultrie, a judge in Colquitt County ruled that another child molester, Dennis P. Monday, could remove himself from the sex offender registry because he had received a pardon. Monday and Davis are among the three dozen sex offenders the parole board has pardoned since 2008, public records show.

A day after the hearing in Savannah, a grand jury indicted Davis for violating the sex offender law. The case is on hold while the Georgia Court of Appeals considers McConnell’s request to reverse Walmsley’s decision keeping Davis’ file confidential.

In the meantime, pardoned or not, Davis remains on the sex offender registry in two states. North Carolina says he lives at an address in Charlotte. Georgia lists him as still incarcerated in the Chatham County jail.

Both could be wrong. When he answered his cell phone recently, Davis declined to say where he was.




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