Lawyers urge parole board to spare death row inmate’s life

ATLANTA (AP) — Lawyers for a Georgia inmate scheduled to die this week are asking the state parole board to consider his extremely violent childhood and his transformation over more than three decades on death row.

The Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles was holding a hearing Wednesday to allow representatives for John Wayne Conner to argue on his behalf. Conner, 60, is set to be executed Thursday at the state prison in Jackson.

He was convicted of beating friend to death 34 years ago during an argument after a night of drinking and marijuana use.

Conner’s execution, if carried out, would be the sixth this year in Georgia, the most in any year in the state since the death penalty was reinstated nationwide in 1976. Georgia executed five inmates last year and in 1987.

Conner was “raised in almost unimaginable circumstances of poverty and violence,” his lawyers wrote in a clemency application asking that his sentence be commuted to life in prison. His violent upbringing and mental impairments do not excuse what he did, but the board should consider that those details could have convinced a jury or trial court to spare his life if they had been presented, his lawyers argue.

The parole board is the only entity authorized to commute a death sentence in Georgia.

Conner spent the evening of January 9, 1982, drinking and smoking marijuana at a party with his girlfriend and other friends, including J.T. White. They then returned to the home Conner shared with his girlfriend in Milan, about 150 miles southeast of Atlanta.

His girlfriend went to bed, and Conner and White left on foot in search of more alcohol. Conner told police he and White were walking down the road when White told Conner he wanted to sleep with his girlfriend. That led to a fight, during which Conner told police he hit White with the bottle and beat him with a stick, the documents say.

Conner grew up in a home where extreme violence, drug and alcohol abuse and sexual and emotional abuse were the norm, his lawyers wrote. Conner was “indoctrinated into a life that normalized drugs, alcohol, and violence, so much so that he drunkenly beat a friend to death in reaction to a lewd comment,” they wrote.

From an early age, Conner’s teachers suspected he was intellectually disabled, his lawyers wrote.

The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that it is unconstitutional to execute someone who is intellectually disabled.

But Conner’s trial attorney was inexperienced and didn’t present any evidence at trial or during his sentencing, and his attorney in proceedings challenging the constitutionality of his sentence had no resources to investigate, his current lawyers wrote. Neither his trial jury nor state appellate courts heard about his upbringing or intellectual disability, his lawyers wrote.

Conner was allowed to present evidence seeking to prove intellectual disability to a federal court several years ago. That court found he wasn’t intellectually disabled but “did not consider the mitigating impact of Mr. Conner’s poverty-, violence-, and trauma-filled family background and whether such evidence should have justified a sentence less than death,” his lawyers wrote.

Conner’s lawyers made similar arguments in recent filings in Butts County Superior Court, but lawyers for the state argued that the issues being raised have already been addressed or could have been presented previously. A judge denied his petition. His lawyers are appealing to the Georgia Supreme Court.

Conner is deeply remorseful, has found faith and has been a model inmate, eagerly working to keep the cellblocks clean and well-maintained, his lawyers wrote in the clemency application. He also taught himself to paint by watching Bob Ross’ “The Joy of Painting” and other programs on television and gives his artwork to family, legal representatives and members of the prison community, his lawyers wrote.

When a small group of reporters visited death row in October, Conner smiled and chatted. Asked how he passes the time, Conner grinned, baring gaps in his teeth, and said, “I’m glad you asked.” He lifted a corner of his mattress and pulled out a stack of colorful watercolor landscapes.

Asked how he was doing, Conner said his appeals were running out, but smiled and said, “I’m hanging in there. I’m still kicking. In here, that’s a good thing.”

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