A 50-page filing which argues the life of Virgil Delano Presnell Jr. should be spared, just days before his Tuesday execution for the 1976 rape of one girl and murder of another, was released Friday by the State Board of Pardons and Paroles.
An attorney for Presnell, who has sat on death row for 46 years, has asked his execution be stayed for 90 days and his sentence ultimately be commuted to life without parole.
Monet Brewerton-Palmer, an attorney for the Federal Defender Program, argues Presnell was emotionally and intellectually stunted by fetal alcohol disorder, and has “significant cognitive impairments” that merit his protection from execution. The filing likewise recounts decades of beatings and sexual abuse Presnell has experienced during his nearly five decades in prison.
Presnell was convicted of kidnapping and murdering an eight-year-old girl and kidnapping and raping a 10-year-old girl in 1976, just months after the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty. His sentence was vacated on a technicality, but in 1999 then-Cobb District Attorney Pat Head successfully re-sought the death penalty.
“Counsel applies for executive clemency on Mr. Presnell’s behalf not to minimize or distract from the pain Mr. Presnell caused, but to help the Board understand why it happened and the price that he has paid for what he did in 1976,” Brewerton-Palmer writes.
The filing recounts Presnell’s younger years growing up in Atlanta in a family where sexual abuse was “endemic.” It argues Presnell is “profoundly brain damaged” and likely suffered from fetal alcohol syndrome due to his mother’s heavy drinking while pregnant, citing failing report cards and cognitive evaluations that consistently found he was mentally behind his peers by several years.
The filing draws on the testimony of Cobb Superior Court Senior Judge Adele Grubbs, who was one of the attorneys representing Presnell in 1976.
“[T]his death sentence case was tried to conclusion within four months of the crimes,” Grubbs recalled in the clemency application. “This is one of the fastest such cases ever and without proper time on either side. This was an election year, a hotly contested one in which the district attorney who tried the case (George “Buddy” Darden) had serious opposition. The pressure was on.”
Presnell’s willingness under questioning to admit to every open crime against children in the county further demonstrates his mental disability, the filing argues.
“Although Virgil was 22 years of age he seemed so much younger, he was clearly emotionally and intellectually in his early teens,” Grubbs added.
Nonetheless, Presnell was convicted and sentenced to die. Citing eyewitness testimony and the reports of prison counselors, Brewerton-Palmer says Presnell suffered years of rape and abuse first at Georgia State Prison in Reidsville and then at the Georgia Diagnostic and Classification State Prison in Jackson.
“People can and will debate whether Mr. Presnell has served enough time, but nobody can dispute that he has served hard time,” Brewerton-Palmer argues. “His crime was the worst of the worst — and so has his sentence been.”
Today, the filing argues, Presnell lives a “quiet life” in prison with a nearly nonexistent disciplinary record. Because his family will not have the opportunity to attend the execution given the short notice on which it was scheduled, and because further evaluation by an unnamed expert could demonstrate his incapacity, the defense has asked the execution to be delayed by 90 days. From there, the defense would ask for a commutation to life without parole.
Darden told the MDJ Friday that while one can argue the merits of the death penalty, so long as there’s a statute on the books, he maintains Presnell is deserving of it.
“I regret it’s taken this long. I think it’s totally unacceptable and unjustifiable it took that long, but at the same time, that does not change my opinion on the seriousness and the egregious circumstances of it. I don’t think the passage of time in and of itself excuses the conduct,” Darden said.
The full document containing Presnell’s clemency request can be found here: https://pap.georgia.gov/press-releases/2022-05-13/clemency-request-virgil-presnell-jr