Lawyers Cite Troubled Past In Plea To Spare Inmate's Life

May 12, 2017

Lawyers for a Georgia inmate scheduled for execution next week are asking the state parole board to spare his life, citing a rough childhood, substance abuse from an early age and his intellectual disability.

J.W. Ledford Jr., 45, is scheduled to be put to death Tuesday. He was convicted of murder in the January 1992 stabbing death of his neighbor, 73-year-old Dr. Harry Johnston, near his home in Murray County, in northwest Georgia.

A clemency application submitted by his lawyers and released Thursday by the State Board of Pardons and Paroles asks the board to take into account details and factors that the courts have been legally or procedurally barred from considering.

"The citizens of this state have empowered this Board to make decisions not as judges under the law, but as human beings, to serve as the conscience of our community," Ledford's lawyers wrote.

The parole board plans to hold a meeting Monday to hear arguments for or against granting clemency. The board is the only authority in Georgia with power to commute a death sentence.

Ledford's lawyers do not deny that he killed Johnston, and they say his troubled background serves not as an excuse but rather to give insight into how, at age 20 and with no history of violence, he came to kill his neighbor.

Conasauga Judicial Circuit District Attorney Bert Poston, whose office prosecuted Ledford, did not immediately respond to a call Thursday afternoon seeking comment, but he has previously said he plans to attend the hearing and ask the parole board not to grant clemency.

Ledford told police he had gone to Johnston's home on Jan. 31, 1992, to ask for a ride to the grocery store. After the older man accused him of stealing and smacked him, Ledford pulled out a knife and stabbed Johnston to death, according to court filings. The pathologist who did the autopsy said Johnston suffered "one continuous or two slices to the neck" and bled to death.

After dragging Johnston's body to another part of the property and covering it up, Ledford went to Johnston's house with a knife and demanded money from Johnston's wife, according to court filings. He took money and four guns from the home, tied up Johnston's wife and left in Johnston's truck. He was arrested later that day.

Ledford told police he had a number of beers and smoked a couple joints in the hours before the killing.

Known as "Boy" because he was his parents' first male child after six girls, Ledford's childhood was characterized by whippings and verbal abuse from his father, who was strict when sober and mean when drunk, the clemency application says.

Ledford's older sisters and cousins began giving him alcohol when he was 7 or 8 to watch him get drunk and then began giving him drugs around age 10, the application says.

Ledford is intellectually disabled and that caused him to struggle throughout school and later made even simple jobs requiring minimal skills difficult, his lawyers wrote.

State law and a U.S. Supreme Court ruling prohibit the execution of the intellectually disabled, which means Ledford is ineligible for execution, his lawyers argue.

State and federal courts have consistently rejected Ledford's claims of intellectual disability, but his lawyers are urging the parole board members to use the extra discretion they're allowed to consider the totality of his circumstances.

The clemency application also includes testimonials from friends, family members and pen pals who say he has offered them support and help even from prison. Two prison guards are quoted as saying he never gave them trouble and got along with other inmates and officers.

Life without the chance of parole was not a sentencing option at the time of Ledford's trial, but five of the jurors from his trial told his lawyers they would have chosen that instead of death had it been available, the application says.