A dead issue 

Where does it say, "Kill for Jesus"?

It's too bad for Fred Gilreath that he didn't live in Yugoslavia. He'd still be alive. Just 10 days before Georgia officials at a state prison in Jackson jabbed needles into Gilreath and injected him with poison, the war-torn, ripped-apart nation of Yugoslavia decreed that it would no longer execute criminals.

The Balkan republic joined almost the entire civilized world, 109 nations including all of Western Europe, in shunning state homicide. The United States hunkers down with the international Neanderthals -- human rights criminals such as China, Cuba, Libya, Saudi Arabia, Iraq and, if there any left, the Taliban mullahs -- in petulantly embracing legalized lethal savagery.

Gilreath spent a third of his 63 years awaiting the executioner's arrival -- in itself a gruesome form of punishment any sane society would declare cruel and unusual. The relatives of the Gilreath's victims, who also were the condemned prisoner's kin, didn't howl for his death. They pleaded and prayed for his life. Indeed, by any criteria imaginable, Gilreath was a poor choice for official slaughter.

On May 11, 1979, Fred Gilreath took a shotgun and two rifles and blew away his wife, Linda, and her father. The marriage was breaking up, Gilreath was tanked up, and what went down was bloody carnage.

It was also a crime of passion, a status that while certainly not exonerating the killer, usually merits life imprisonment.

The tragic couple had two children, Chris and Felicia. As one of Gilreath's lawyers, Brian Mendelsohn puts it: "When they were 8 and 12, they had one parent violently removed from their lives. Twenty-two years later, the state of Georgia subjected them to the same trauma all over again."

Gilreath's son, Chris Kellett, talked to me after his dad's execution. "I had always been an advocate of the death penalty," he said. "But if this is how it is carried out ... I saw things that were horrible and incredible. I can't believe there isn't a higher power that doesn't stop this."

Kellett also noted that who gets the fatal needle is "arbitrary." The state Board of Pardons and Parole "certainly doesn't seem interested in studying the merits of cases and making an informed decision," he said.

His words echo a 29-year-old U.S. Supreme Court decision, Furman v. Georgia, in which the death penalty was struck down, igniting a bloodlust race among states to reenact legal homicide. Justice Potter Stewart wrote in Furman that executions were "wantonly and ... freakishly imposed."

Which pretty much describes what happened to Gilreath.

Mike Mears, the state-paid (but woefully underfunded) defender of the damned points out how mercurial capital punishment is in Georgia. "You kill someone in DeKalb County, you're likely to get executed. Do the same thing a few yards away in Fulton County, you'll get life. Now that's arbitrary."

Any sense of fairness evaporated with Gilreath's execution. "I thought the death penalty was supposed to be for premeditated murder," Kellett said. "Yet, when we went before the board, the first question they asked was about premeditation. They obviously hadn't taken the time to read the information we had given them. We had addressed that point at length, and what my father did was not premeditated."

Kellett thought for a moment, and then added: "But what the state did to him was the epitome of premeditation. They plotted his murder for more than 20 years."

If you should go to the website of the pardons board (www.pap.state.ga.us/overview.html), the agency's mission statement proclaims that one of its top priorities is to "respond to the needs and concerns of crime victims and their families."

It's a lie.

Neither of Linda Gilreath's children wanted their father to die for killing their mom. In fact, all family members opposed his execution.

"If the board believed its own mission statement," Kellett said, "this would be a no-brainer. If my father's life couldn't be spared, what case could convince these people to grant clemency?"

A good question.

Why did Fred Gilreath die?

I thought the state Board of Pardons and Parole, which turned thumbs down on Gilreath two days before his execution, might know. But according to Kellett and others who attended the hearing, the board members were uninterested in the merits of the case. One of the board members felt a junket to Las Vegas was more important than a man's life -- and somewhere between the slot machines and the showgirls, he faxed in his vote.

Of course, one shouldn't expect much of the board. It may well be a high-crime area, with two of its own members under investigation for ethical skullduggery. But being scummy in Georgia doesn't disqualify one from voting on life and death decisions.

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