JACKSON — Ray Jefferson Cromartie was executed Wednesday evening by lethal injection. His time of death was approximately 10:59 p.m.
Cromartie, 52, was led by six uniformed corrections officers into an execution chamber in the Georgia Diagnostic and Classification Prison. Once inside, Cromartie was strapped to a gurney and injected with a lethal dose of pentobarbital.
Half an hour later, Cromartie was dead.
Sentenced to death in 1997 for the shooting death of convenience store clerk Richard Slysz, Cromartie maintained his innocence until the end. He had been offered a plea deal more than two decades ago that would have resulted in parole eligibility after seven years, but turned it down because he insisted he was not the killer.
Melven Johnson, chief investigator and supervisor of the unit with the Thomasville Police Department that investigated the murder, said the evidence paints a different story.
"There was no doubt in our minds then, and there's no doubt in our minds now that he was the shooter," said Johnson, 71, who later retired from TPD before taking a job with the Thomas County Sheriff's Office.
In the early morning hours of April 10, 1994, Cromartie and two associates drove to the Junior Food Store in Thomasville to steal a pack of beer. The driver, Thaddeus Lucas, was told to stay in the car while Cromartie and Corey Clark entered the store. Though Cromartie later admitted his involvement in the robbery, he claimed it was one of his accomplices who shot the 50-year-old Slysz twice in the head at close range.
After an unsuccessful attempt to open the store's cash register, Cromartie grabbed two 12-packs of beer and fled the scene with Clark. In the midst of the commotion, one of the 12-packs broke and spilled beer cans onto the ground. An eyewitness saw two individuals fleeing the store after the shooting and dropping a pack of beer.
Prosecutors say Cromartie had borrowed the murder weapon, a .25-caliber pistol, from his cousin just days before Slysz was shot.
On the night of April 7, 1994, the weapon was used for the first time during an unsuccessful robbery at the Madison Street Deli on North Madison Street. Dan Wilson, who was working as a clerk that night, was shot in the face. Wilson survived the shooting, despite his carotid artery being severed.
Tape from the deli's video camera was not clear enough to conclusively identify Cromartie, but an individual fitting his general description can be seen entering the store and walking behind the counter to where Wilson was washing dishes. The shooting occurred outside the video's frame, but the sound of a gunshot can be heard.
Two of Cromartie's associates later testified that he told them he had shot Wilson.
Three days later, the pistol would be turned on Slysz.
It didn't take long for law enforcement to link the two incidents. Investigators noticed certain features from both shootings that indicated they may have been committed by the same assailant. Both victims had been shot in the head at point blank, and attempts were made to open nearby cash registers afterwards.
Several days after Slysz's murder, police responded to a shooting incident at Cherokee Apartments. Interviews with residents indicated that Cromartie was in possession of a firearm, and that he had been responsible for the shootings.
Police later recovered the pistol Cromartie had borrowed hidden near a railroad track and determined that it was used in both shootings.
Both Lucas and Clark testified that Cromartie boasted about shooting Slysz — a detail which prosecutors would use in their decision to charge malice murder rather than felony murder. Plaster casts of shoe prints in the muddy field outside the store matched the shoes Cromartie was wearing when he was arrested. His left thumb print was also found on a torn Budweiser 12-pack carton close to the shoe prints.
"All of it led back to Cromartie," Johnson said.
That evidence isn't convincing for Shawn Nolan, Cromartie's legal counsel, who said DNA testing would have been able to definitively verify the shooter's identity.
"The State's rush to execute Mr. Cromartie without DNA testing is tragic for him, and should be troubling for us all," Nolan said in a statement.
Though not available at the time of Cromartie's conviction, Nolan said new technologies can now be used to test microscopic amounts of biological material on evidence including clothing believed to be worn by the shooter, shell casings found at the crime scene and the murder weapon itself.
Among those who suspect that DNA testing could have cleared Cromatie's name is Elizabeth Legette, Slysz's daughter.
"There are questions about what happened that night that could be answered by DNA testing," Legette wrote in a July 16 letter to Southern Judicial Circuit District Attorney Brad Shealy and senior Assistant Attorney General Sabrina Graham.
The state Board of Pardons denied a request to stay the execution last month to allow time for federal courts to determine whether Cromartie's request for DNA testing could move forward.
For their roles in the Junior Food Store robbery, Clark and Lucas both pled guilty to robbery and hindering the apprehension of a criminal. Clark was sentenced to serve 25 years in prison while Lucas was sentenced to 20 years in prison plus 10 years probation.
Seventy-four inmates have been executed in Georgia since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976. Cromartie was the 52nd inmate to be put to death by lethal injection.
There are currently 45 men and one woman under death sentence in Georgia.