ATLANTA—The life of a Georgia man set to be executed Tuesday for killing an 8-year-old girl should be spared, his lawyer argues, explaining that her client has significant cognitive impairments that likely contributed to his crimes and has suffered horrific abuse in prison.
Virgil Delano Presnell Jr., 68, killed the 8-year-old girl and raped her 10-year-old friend after abducting them as they walked home from school in Cobb County, just outside Atlanta, on May 4, 1976. He was convicted in August 1976 on charges including malice murder, kidnapping, and rape and was sentenced to death. His death sentence was overturned in 1992 but was reinstated in March 1999.
“Before society makes a man pay the ultimate price for a crime, it must determine if his culpability justifies the cost. In Virgil’s case, it simply does not. Virgil Presnell is profoundly disabled,” his attorney Monet Brewerton-Palmer wrote in a clemency application that was declassified Friday by the State Board of Pardons and Paroles.
The application acknowledges the gravity of what Presnell did and says he is “deeply and profoundly sorry” to the two girls' families. It asks the parole board to postpone his execution by 90 days so the board can review his application and then to commute his sentence to life without the possibility of parole.
The five-member parole board, which is the only authority in Georgia that can commute a death sentence, has scheduled a closed-door clemency hearing Monday to consider his case.
Presnell's mother drank large amounts of alcohol while she was pregnant with him, and a history of serious developmental disabilities is well-documented in his school records, Brewerton-Palmer wrote, adding that he grew up in an “abusive and unstable environment,” and sexual abuse was “endemic” in his family.
Even when he was arrested, his significant cognitive limitations were on display, the clemency application says. Under questioning by police, he confessed to every open crime against children in the county.
A letter from Adele Grubbs, Presnell's trial lawyer who later became a superior court judge, is quoted in the application: “Virgil was always clear that he did not mean to harm either girl. The effect on them of being kidnapped was beyond his understanding. He thought that they would have an enjoyable time.”
The clemency application acknowledges that that seems unbelievable, but argues “that does not mean untruthful.”
“If it seems so unbelievable, then we must ask ourselves why anyone would believe it. And the answer is simple: Virgil is profoundly brain damaged,” Brewerton-Palmer wrote.
Presnell suffered prenatal brain damage and likely suffers from a fetal alcohol spectrum disorder, but that wasn't an available diagnosis at the time of his trial nearly 46 years ago, the clemency application says.
“We did not know better in 1976. But we know better today. A just society does not execute the developmentally disabled,” it says.
Over nearly half a century in prison, Presnell has served “hard time,” the clemency application says: “His crime was the worst of the worst — and so has his sentence been.”
Particularly during is early years on death row, Presnell was “routinely raped, beaten, and deprived,” endured winters without heat or hot water, and sometimes went several years without setting foot outdoors, the clemency application says. But despite that hardship, he “has a spotless disciplinary history and has been a model prisoner."
A juror from his 1999 resentencing trial is quoted in the clemency application as saying he believed at least six of the jurors, including himself, would have supported a sentence of life without parole if it had been an option.
Presnell abducted the two girls as they walked home along a wooded trail from a Cobb County elementary school on May 4, 1976. He drove them to a secluded wooded area, had them undress and raped the older girl, according to evidence at trial outlined in a Georgia Supreme Court ruling. The younger girl tried to run, but Presnell caught her and drowned her in a creek, the ruling says.
He locked the 10-year-old girl in the trunk of his car and then left her in a wooded area when he got a flat tire, saying he’d return. She ran to a nearby gas station and described Presnell and his car with a flat tire to police.
Officers found him changing his tire at his apartment complex. He denied everything at first but later led police to the 8-year-old girls body and confessed, the ruling says.
Presnell would be the first person executed by Georgia this year and the seventh nationwide.