Arguing that Marion Wilson (pictured, center) did not kill anyone and did not intend that a killing occur, lawyers for the Georgia death-row prisoner have filed a clemency petition urging the Georgia State Board of Pardons and Paroles to commute Wilson’s sentence to life without parole. The Board, which declassified Wilson’s petition allowing it to be released to the public, is scheduled to hold a clemency hearing on Wednesday, June 19, 2019, one day before Wilson is scheduled to be executed. Wilson’s petition emphasizes three arguments for clemency: that Wilson neither killed nor planned to kill the victim, Donovan Parks; that the prosecution grossly exaggerated Wilson’s juvenile record and gang involvement to make him appear more deserving of the death penalty; and that the jury was never presented significant mitigating evidence concerning the chronic deprivation, abuse, and neglect Wilson experienced throughout his childhood.

Wilson was convicted of the 1996 killing of Donovan Parks. Robert Earl Butts, who was executed in 2018, was tried separately for the same murder and sentenced to death after prosecutor Fred Bright told the jury that the state’s evidence proved that Butts had pulled the trigger. Both Butts and Wilson were seen asking Parks for a ride and getting into his car. Soon after, Parks was found dead of a shotgun wound. Wilson’s attorneys argue that Bright, who prosecuted both men, “certainly believed that Butts was the more culpable party” because he offered a plea deal to Wilson but not Butts. Wilson, who was only 19 at the time Parks was killed, rejected the plea offer “largely out of fear that, as a young, small-statured inmate, he would be endangered in general population at a maximum-security prison.” Wilson suspected Butts intended to rob someone, but has long maintained that he had no idea Butts planned to hurt or kill anyone. Wilson went to trial first and was convicted. Although the prosecution presented no evidence that Wilson was the shooter, Bright nevertheless argued to the jury in the penalty phase that he had been the triggerman. At Butts’ trial one year later, Bright contradicted that argument, presenting evidence that Butts committed the killing. “That the prosecution falsely maintained that Marion was the shooter in order to obtain the death penalty was, and still remains, highly unethical and contrary to the State’s higher duty of probity and truthfulness in any criminal proceeding,” the clemency petition states.

The clemency petition also highlights other false statements by the prosecution that it says gave the jury a “grossly distorted version of [Wilson]’s teenage years and gang involvement.” “Bright’s presentation of Marion’s juvenile record during sentencing was rife with hyperbole and outright falsehoods,” the petition says. Among the hyperbole, Bright told the jury that Wilson “tried to burn down a duplex apartment” when he was 12 years old. In reality, Wilson and two other pre-teen friends were playing in an abandoned duplex unit and tried to warm themselves by lighting paper and rags on fire. A responding police officer said “there was ‘not enough accelerant’ on the smoldering rags and papers to do any damage and that the ‘fire never really caught.’” On the subject of Wilson’s alleged gang affiliation, his lawyers say the prosecution “took several statements of youthful bravado and presented them out of context, playing on the county’s prevalent gang paranoia to present a hyperbolic image of the gang menace facing the community.” Bright had twice been found by the Georgia Supreme Court to have made bad faith statements attempting to link crimes to gangs when there was no evidence they were gang-related. However, Wilson’s trial lawyer failed to present evidence to the jury contradicting the prosecutor’s false assertions.

Finally, Wilson’s clemency attorneys provided the Board with extensive mitigating evidence that trial counsel failed to present to the jury. They write: “Wilson’s life — from conception to incarceration — was characterized by instability, neglect, abuse and trauma. Teachers, social workers and family friends remember a warm, intelligent and creative child yearning for a nurturing environment but trapped in a hopeless situation. Subjected to racism throughout his childhood by his extended family, school and the broader community for his biracial identity, Marion struggled to find himself and gradually succumbed to the self-destructive lifestyle that resulted in his imprisonment as a juvenile offender at the age of 17. What makes Marion’s childhood even more tragic is that it is clear that for a few brief periods in his life when he actually had a modicum of stability, security and emotional and moral support, he was able to thrive.” Because of trial counsel’s failures, they said, “[t]he jury that sentenced Marion to death was wholly unaware of his history of pervasive and prolonged abuse and neglect at the hands of numerous adults in his life, as well as evidence of impaired cognitive function and organic brain damage.”

Since the U.S. Supreme Court upheld Georgia’s death-penalty statute in 1976, the state has executed only one prisoner whom the evidence showed did not commit the killing — Kelly Gissendaner, who was convicted of planning and covering up her husband’s murder. The petition argues that “[b]y virtue of the prosecutor’s misconduct and his trial counsel’s incompetence, Marion Wilson faces death while others, far more culpable, are spared.” it states, asking the board to “afford Marion a chance to accept the deal he did not have the maturity or foresight to take over twenty years ago, and allow him to prove himself worthy” of a lesser sentence.


(Attorneys for death row inmate ask for clemen­cy, Jackson Progress-Argus, June 17, 2019; Kate Brumback, Lawyers ask board to spare con­demned Georgia man’s life, Associated Press, June 17, 2019.) Read Marion Wilson’s clemen­cy peti­tion.