On July 9, 2014, the Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles spared Tommy Lee Waldrip’s life, commuting his sentence of death to life without parole the day before he was set to be executed. Tommy had been on death row for more than two decades.
Volunteer attorneys from Drinker Biddle & Reath began working on Tommy Lee Waldrip’s case in 1997, three years after he was convicted and sentenced to death for the murder of Keith Evans. Tommy, his son, and his brother-in-law were all arrested for the murder of the 23-year-old college student, who was scheduled to testify against Tommy’s son in a pending retrial for armed robbery. While all three men were charged in connection with Evans’ murder, they were tried separately, and only Tommy was sentenced to death. Volunteer attorneys from Drinker Biddle took Tommy’s case after the Georgia Supreme Court rejected his direct appeal and the U.S. Supreme Court denied his petition for certiorari. As the team began work on Tommy’s initial state habeas petition, they discovered evidence calling into question the veracity of his involvement in the shooting, as well as evidence suggesting that police had continued to interrogate him even after he requested an attorney, in violation of his Fifth Amendment rights.
After being taken into custody on an unrelated offense, Tommy offered three separate confessions to Evans’ murder, but each confession was inconsistent. More importantly, the confessions were inconsistent with the evidence found at the crime scene. Although he was found competent to stand trial, Tommy is mentally ill, which attorneys feared made him more susceptible to falsely confessing to Evans’ murder to protect his son. Additionally, in state and federal habeas petitions, Drinker attorneys argued that the state had suppressed material evidence in violation of Brady v. Maryland, including evidence that the police had violated Tommy’s Miranda rights by continuing to speak with him after he requested an attorney. While the State initially maintained that Tommy had never requested an attorney during interrogation, volunteer attorneys were eventually able to uncover documentary evidence that Tommy had, in fact, requested an attorney, but that police denied his request. This evidence was uncovered amid 10,000 pages of discovery that the district attorney’s office disclosed after a court order compelling production of the documents. Although Tommy’s attorneys alleged that the evidence indicating that Tommy had requested an attorney while in custody constituted favorable evidence that the state had suppressed, the state and federal courts disagreed that the suppressed evidence was prejudicial. That is, neither the state nor the federal courts found that, had the evidence suggesting Tommy requested an attorney been turned over to his defense team, it would have made a difference to the outcome at trial.
After the U.S. Supreme Court declined to review the denial of federal habeas relief, the state set a July 10, 2014 execution date. In Georgia, the only entity with the power to grant clemency is the state’s Board of Pardons and Paroles, which—unlike in many other states—acts without input or approval from the governor. Drinker Biddle and attorneys from the Georgia office of the Federal Public Defender advocated for Tommy before the Board, pointing to the likelihood that he had exaggerated his role in the crime to protect his son. They also argued that Tommy’s sentence was disproportionate since his son and brother-in-law both received life sentences rather than death for their involvement in the same crime. Finally, friends and relatives spoke to the Board, pleading for mercy. Although the Board did not publicize its reasons for granting clemency, the day before the scheduled execution, it announced its decision to commute Tommy’s sentence to life in prison without the possibility of parole. The Board’s decision represented a remarkable outcome after 17 years of dedicated advocacy by Drinker Biddle volunteer lawyers.