Houston County District Attorney George Hartwig spoke against clemency for Houston County killer Travis Hittson and witnessed his execution Wednesday night.
Both experiences were firsts for Hartwig, who has been a prosecutor in Houston County for 15 years, including five as the district attorney. He's also seeking the death penalty in two pending cases, one of which will mark the first such case he will try.
Hartwig sat down with The Telegraph last week to talk about his experiences before the state Board of Pardons and Paroles and at the execution.
Hittson, 45, was executed by lethal injection at the Georgia Diagnostic and Classification Prison near Jackson for the murder and dismemberment of fellow sailor Conway Utterbeck in 1992. Co-defendant Ed Vollmer, Hittson's petty officer, is serving a life sentence and won't be eligible for parole consideration until 2024.
"I can tell you that I took no joy in it -- in going and watching that occur," Hartwig said of Hittson's execution. "It is not at all a situation where prison officials or prosecutors or the law enforcement folks sit around and revel in it or take any joy.
"There's no high-fiving going on, if you will. It's a very solemn and somber thing, as it should be. It's extremely serious. It is the ultimate carrying out of justice in our society. It is the ultimate punishment that somebody can receive."
Hartwig said he wanted to address the parole board to give voice to the victim.
"One of the points I made with the parole board was the fact that Edward Vollmer, the codefendant, didn't get a death sentence; the fact that he got life; (and) that should not inure to the benefit of Travis Hittson, who a jury did recommend death on and who a judge did impose a death sentence.
"And frankly, the facts of the case were that it was Travis Hittson that hit Mr. Utterbeck several times with an aluminum baseball bat in the head. It was Travis Hittson who pointed the gun at Mr. Utterbeck as he begged and pleaded for his life and frankly shot him in the forehead and executed him."
Hartwig also told the board that there was more than one execution to consider.
"The execution that I wanted them to think about for a few moments and to have in their minds as they made their decision was the execution of Mr. Utterbeck, and that execution was carried out without any appeal, without any clemency hearing, without any habeas corpus, without any rights whatsoever, without anybody being in his corner. ... And that execution was in fact carried out by Mr. Hittson."
In months before the execution, Hartwig said he had several telephone conversations with Utterbeck's mother, who wanted closure and addressed the parole board over a speaker phone during parole board hearing.
"Without her actually using the word death or kill or execute, I think it was pretty clear to the entire board and it certainly was to me that she wanted the sentence upheld, she wanted the sentence carried out ...," Hartwig said.
The board also pushed back Vollmer's next eligibility date to be considered for parole by eight years, based information revealed behind closed doors during the clemency hearing. Vollmer, who was denied parole last year, would otherwise have been eligible for parole consideration in 2020.
"I don't think he should ever be released from prison," Hartwig said. "He should spend the rest of his life there."
Hittson's attorneys painted Vollmer as the real mastermind or instigator of the killing, but both Hittson and Vollmer deserved the death sentence, Hartwig said.
"It would have been appropriate for both of them to get a death sentence in this case given the vicious, heinous, senseless nature of the crime."
Hartwig and Greg Winters, an assistant district attorney for Houston County, sat in the front row of the viewing room for the execution. Hittson's mother was somewhere behind them.
Hittson was lying on a gurney, his arms outstretched, with tubes in his arms that went through two holes in a back wall, where the lethal injection was administered out of view of witnesses. A sheet covered him up to his chest.
The viewing room was still. There was complete silence.
Hittson accepted a final prayer and recorded a final statement. The injection isn't visible to viewers. But Hittson's chest stopped moving, Hartwig said.
Hittson was declared dead and curtains on the side of the viewing glass in the execution room were closed. Those in the viewing room, about 20, filed out of the room solemnly.
"It was something I felt was important," Hartwig said. "If I as a prosecutor am going to make the decision and seek the death penalty on somebody, I want to know everything I can know about it.
"I want to know how the process works. I want to know how it's carried out. I want to be fully informed about that -- about what the results and the consequences are of the decisions I make."
PENDING HOUSTON CASES
Hartwig is seeking the death penalty against Homer Ridley III, who is accused of drowning his next-door neighbor in a bathtub more than 20 years ago.
Ridley is serving a life sentence for an unrelated 1988 rape in Warner Robins. In May, a Houston County grand jury indicted Ridley, 46, on one count of malice murder and two counts of felony murder in the slaying of 20-year-old Summer Gleaton in her Terry Street home in Warner Robins in 1994.
Hartwig also is seeking the death penalty for Michael Montreal Gooden, 23, the accused shooter in the killing of Monnie Joseph Brabham IV, 32, of Macon, as he pumped gas at a Booth Road station in Warner Robins in early 2014.
Gooden was indicted on charges of malice murder, felony murder, aggravated assault, armed robbery and violation of the street gang terrorism and prevention act, along with other alleged members of an Atlanta gang. Brabham was not part of a gang, police said.
Hartwig declined comment on the pending cases. But he said the decision that resulted in a Warner Robins man coming off death row after more than 37 years was appropriate.
Houston County Chief Judge George F. Nunn resentenced Roger Collins to life on Aug. 26 after an evaluation found that Collins met the diagnostic criteria for mental retardation. Although the U.S. Supreme Court banned the execution of mentally retarded people in 2002, how determinations of mental capacity are made were left up to each state. Collins' case languished for years.
Collins was 18 in 1977 when he was convicted and sentenced to death for bludgeoning 17-year-old Deloris Luster with a car bumper jack after he and another man raped her at knifepoint. Codefendant William Durham, who was dating Collins' mother at the time, was sentenced to life for the 1977 crime. A third man, Johnny Styles, who waited in a car after the rape while Luster was killed, was granted immunity in exchange for his testimony.
To contact writer Becky Purser, call 256-9559, or find her on Twitternote>