ATLANTA — The Georgia pardons board made the rare decision Friday to spare the life of a condemned man who was set to die this week for the 1991 murder of his ex-classmate.
The move by the Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles to reduce Daniel Greene’s death sentence to life in prison without parole came days after the board stayed his execution. Greene was initially set to die Thursday for the murder of 20-year-old Bernard Walker, who was fatally stabbed as he tried to help a store clerk attacked by Greene.
It was only the fourth time the board has commuted a death sentence since 2002, and it came after an outpouring of support for the Taylor County man by community members, a change of heart by the prosecutor who tried the case against him and a powerful plea for mercy from the condemned man himself.
“I think Daniel’s remorse is very apparent. He’s led an exemplary life before and since these incidents,” said his defense attorney, Jeff Ertel.
Greene, 42, has been on death row for almost 20 years. His crime spree began Sept. 27, 1991, when he robbed clerk Virginia Wise at her Taylor County convenience store and then stabbed her through the lung. She survived the attack.
Moments later, Walker entered the store and tried to help Wise. Greene stabbed his former classmate through the heart before fleeing, leaving Walker to die in the store’s parking lot. Greene then went on to attack an elderly couple in nearby Macon County and another store clerk in Warner Robins before he was arrested.
Greene had to be tried in Clayton County because of all the media coverage in his hometown. He was convicted in December 1992 of murder, robbery and assault and was sentenced to death.
At a closed-door meeting Tuesday, nine of Greene’s supporters spoke on his behalf, and many more sent in impassioned letters urging the board to spare his life. They described him as a gentle giant and hardworking student who stayed out of trouble until the “drug-crazed transgression.”
Former Taylor County Sheriff Nick Giles called him a “beloved son” of the community, and a former corrections officer who knew Greene in prison said he was “as fine a man as I have ever met in my life.”
Greene also sent in a letter to the board expressing his remorse for the pain and suffering he caused Walker’s family.
“I was on drugs at the time, but I took the drugs with my hands, and I take the responsibility. That choice to do drugs and what I did after were the worst mistakes of my life,” he said in the letter. “I do not blame the drugs. I blame myself for everything.”
Taylor County Sheriff Jeff Watson, who went to school with Greene and Walker, said the community was split over the pending execution. He and a local pastor visited Greene in the days leading up to it, and said they found Greene to be remorseful.
“I know a bunch of people went to bat for him, and others think he should be executed. I’ve heard both ways,” he said. “And I know there were a lot of people who are pulling for him.”
District Attorney Julia Slater didn’t immediately return calls seeking comment. Walker’s sister, Amanda Walker Prude, declined to comment.
Mark Shelnutt, the Columbus attorney who prosecuted Greene, told the paroles board that what led him to seek capital punishment was that life without parole was not a sentencing option for Georgia juries at the time.
The death penalty, he said, “was the only way you could make sure he wouldn’t hurt someone again.” But when he went before the board this week, he said he told the five-member panel he was having second thoughts about the death sentence.
“Things back then were so black and white, so right and wrong. I think what happened is I’m not the same person that I was then. I’ve had more experience, and I’ve seen the justice system involved, and the imperfections of it,” he said. “Much more heinous crimes have resulted in life sentences, and that’s what I told them.”