A conviction and life sentence may not always be the end for victims of violent crime and their families.
In some cases, years, even decades later, the criminal is back on the streets.
Prosecutors say they are having trouble getting the information they need to keep these offenders in prison.
“He followed her to the kitchen, “details Greg McConnell, Chief Assistant Chatham County District Attorney. “He said in his statement to police he decided to put his hand over her mouth, get a butcher knife and cut her throat because he wanted money to purchase drugs.”
He is Keith McCrae. He’s the man convicted of murdering Emma Ferguson, a woman he knew, back in 1988.
“He wanted money for drugs. How much did he get?”
“It was a very small amount…it was $19.50.”
Prosecutors say McCrae would have gotten the death penalty if he didn’t have a mental condition.
“Shortly before trial the state learned he had significant mental condition,” explains McConnell. “Apparently as a small child he ingested a large number of aspirin and suffered irreversible brain damage. Based on his mental condition the State accepted a reduced plea.”
The plea deal for McCrae, life in prison.
“This guy was facing the Death penalty and the death penalty probably would have been appropriate in this case,” said McConnell. “Instead he agreed to spend the rest of his life in prison and given the severity of this crime that’s the fair result.”
26 years after the crime, that life sentence could be over. Keith McCrae is in a work release program, the next step before he is eligible for parole. That could happen despite Ferguson’s daughter’s claim in an email to the District Attorney’s office she is “afraid for her life and her family’s. Who’s to say he won’t kill again.”
“We know we are going to oppose parole,” said McConnell. “What im looking for is to find out how he behaved in prison. So i contacted department of corrections to see if they would provide me with that information.”
But that information is not available to prosecutors. The Department of Corrections calling those records a “state secret”.
“Do you know if he has a dispilinary record?”
“I don’t know. But I’d like to know,” said McConnell.
In the case of Willie Doyle, a convicted murderer release paroled back to Chatham County. Prosecutors only got the last 10 years of prison disciplinary records, which didn’t tell the whole story.
“In the case of Willie Doyle his recent records only included 4 or 5 disciplinary events,” said McConnell. “His older records including 600 pages of felonies in prison, assaults against guards assaults against other inmates.”
“If they are going to give someone parole what are you looking at and why is how they did in prison a state secret?” Asks Chatham County District Attorney Meg Heap. “We aren’t talking about their medical records, but how were they while they were in prison.”
Its a battle District Attorney Meg Heap fights repeatedly as she tries to keep some Chatham County’s most violent behind bars.
“We are Looking at only the most violent offenders, these people who have murdered people in this community,” explained Heap. “We are the voice for the Victims and their families and they have asked us to protest.”
Protests which 1 in every 3 times have fallen on deaf ears at the state Parole and Probation board.
8 of 27 times since December violent offenders were paroled, despite the objection of the DA and the victim’s families.
Those include Antonio Bacon, convicted of knowingly infected women with HIV.
Charles Woodard, a registered sex offender who re-offended a dozen times.
James Easterday. 11 convictions for child molestation. Paroled.
Heap and many other District Attorney’s across the state want to know, why doesn’t the parole board give prosecutors, families, anyone a specific reason why any offender is being paroled.
“Everything else up to the conviction, this the whole part of the criminal justice system is open and transparent, why when it hits this point after a conviction why is this hidden. It makes no sense,” said an exasperated Heap.
“Post conviction it becomes a murky black hole which is described as a state secret. And i dont understand and i have yet to hear an answer why..why is it a state secret?”
Heap admits the Board has made strides to change. Now Prosecutors and families get six months notice to before an offender is paroled.
But Heap still has many questions about the entire process.. and is ready to fight for answers.
“Do you believe they are listening to you the Chatham County District Attorney’s Office when you are vehemently opposing these paroles?”
“They may hear but they still have granted parole so my short answer would be no.”
“I hope they listen to the people,” said Heap. “This is our community. That’s part of it is we know the facts. You are talking to the families who have suffered more than anyone else.”
Heap says the Probation and Parole Board have said it has a new database and records are more difficult to access. That’s not an issue according to the DA.
“We will pay for it. If i have got to go to County Commission and ask for more money to get document Government documents.. fine.” explained Heap. “We want to know how its done. We want to know when the Board of Pardons and Parole is making decision whether to pardon someone parole someone what are you looking at, what are you considering.”
In a statement to News 3 from Gwendolyn Hogan of the Department of Corrections:
The GDC has increased the availability of offender disciplinary records for prosecutors within the past year. The GDC began providing disciplinary history reports on offenders from SCRIBE, our data management system. Disciplinary records are part of the offender’s institutional file, which is considered a state secret pursuant to O.C.G.A. 42-5-36 unless declassified by the Commissioner. None of an offenders’ disciplinary history information was available to prosecutors previously.
Everything in an offender’s institutional file, including the disciplinary records, is a state secret by law. See O.C.G.A. 42-5-36. The stated purpose of this statute is to protect offenders who “cooperate in remedying abuses and wrongdoing in the penal system.”
Information about an offender’s conduct while incarcerated is part of the consideration for parole, and the GDC makes this and other relevant data available to the State Board of Pardons and Paroles pursuant to O.C.G.A. 42-9-43.
Steve Hayes, Director of Communications for the Georgia State Board of Pardons and Parole told News 3 no final decision regarding parole for Keith McCrae has been made.
The statement continued to say:
Prison conduct is considered and is considered at the time the board is determining whether to set an actual parole release date or a final decision to grant parole; when determining if an actual parole release will occur, or be granted.
We have access to other agency records, in this case, Corrections’ records but also GBI records and other agency records as a part of determining parole. These records belong to the other agencies and requests for release of the information should be made to those agencies.
The board is not the owner of prison records, and therefore the board cannot declassify or release the documents. The Dept. of Corrections (DOC) is the owner of an inmate’s prison records, specifically inmate disciplinary records, and DOC is the agency to determine the release of those records.
If your family member was murdered you can look on Department of Corrections website see what the status of their parole is.
You can also call the Chatham County District Attorney’s Office for information at (912) 652-7308
Families can also send their contact information to the Department of Corrections so they can notify you of any changes in status.
Heap told News 3 the only way to change the transparency of the Parole board may be through a change in the state constitution.
As the future head of Georgia’s District Attorneys’ Association, she says that will be their “number one” priority in the next year. That’s because the victims and their families deserve it.