Jonathen Jarrells, convicted of beating a 71-year-old woman to death in 1988, no longer faces the death penalty. At the agreement of his lawyers and the Lookout Mountain Judicial Circuit district attorney's office, Judge Brian House signed a consent order, reducing Jarrells' murder sentence to life with the possibility of parole.
It's not immediately clear when Jarrells' case file will slide onto the desks of the State Board of Pardons and Parole. A spokesman for the board said Friday he would need to see Jarrells' sentencing information firsthand.
But experts agree: Jarrells should be eligible soon, if not immediately.
"If he is eligible for parole now," Steve Hayes, the board's spokesman, wrote in an email, "his case would be considered this year."
Times Free Press archives show that Jarrells was visiting his brother in Lyerly, Ga., in 1987 when he knocked on the doors of the home across the street. He met the Elrod sisters: Gertie, 71, and Lorraine, 75.
The sisters let him inside. Jarrells grabbed a pair of scissors and stabbed them. He then tied them to a bed and beat them with an iron until it broke, court records show. He crushed Gertie Elrod's skull, but her sister survived.
"He warned us," Lorraine Elrod testified in court the next year, according to Times Free Press archives. "If we screamed, he'd have to kill us."
A jury convicted Jarrells of murder, armed robbery and aggravated assault. He received a life sentence and the death penalty.
Questions about Jarrells' sentence arose two years later, when a lawyer filed a motion in Butts County, Ga., arguing that Jarrells could not be put to death because he was intellectually disabled. After a hearing, a judge agreed the issue needed to be considered further. The judge remanded Jarrells' case to the Lookout Mountain Judicial Circuit for a new trial to determine if he was, in fact, intellectually disabled.
Twenty-five years later, that case is now resolved.
In 2014, District Attorney Herbert "Buzz" Franklin told the Times Free Press the process was taking decades for many reasons. In part, he said, because these cases are complicated, with a number of pretrial hearings. Franklin, who became district attorney in 1997, added that for years he couldn't figure out who Jarrells' attorney was.
He said that in 2007 he began contacting the Georgia Resource Center, a nonprofit that helps death row inmates find attorneys. Franklin said the group didn't call him back for years.
According to the consent order signed Friday, the attorneys on both sides of the case agreed that Jarrells was intellectually disabled based primarily on an evaluation from Dr. George Baroff, who met with Jarrells before his 1991 hearing in Butts County.
Baroff administered a couple of intelligence tests to Jarrells, concluding that his IQ was 69. He said educators in West Virginia who evaluated Jarrells as a student found the same results. He repeated the first grade, repeated the third grade and, as of 1991, still had not learned how to read a map. He functioned at the level of a 9-year-old.
"When asked how many weeks there are in a year," Baroff wrote in an affidavit at the time of the Butts County hearing, "Mr. Jarrells responded that he did not know, but if he had to guess he would say 30. He did not know the meaning of the word 'enormous,' which he defined as 'somebody happy.'"
According to the consent order, a special education professor at the University of Texas at Austin and a psychiatrist in Atlanta reviewed Baroff's findings.
"All of the doctors have concurred that Mr. Jarrells meets the criteria of intellectual disability," his attorney, Gerald Word, said Friday.
Sarah Gerwig-Moore, a law professor at Mercer University, said Jarrells is likely eligible for parole because the state will treat him under the laws of 1988, not today's. While a defendant convicted of murder would not be eligible for parole until after 30 years in prison now, back in the 1980s that same defendant would be eligible after 7 years.
Still, she said it's unclear whether the parole board will actually grant Jarrells' release. Most of the details of the board's decisions are kept under wraps.
"There will be some consideration," she said. "But Mr. Jarrells won't know when that happens, how that happens, when the vote is."
Hayes, the spokesman, said the board considered 1,381 defendants with life sentences in Fiscal Year 2015. Of those, they granted parole 151 times.
Rodney Zell, an Atlanta-based attorney who specializes in post-conviction cases, said the board will consider the severity of Jarrells' crime, his mental condition and his behavior as an inmate. If interested, Jarrells' family can also present their case to the board, showing them that they will provide health care for Jarrells and a place for him to stay.
Still, he doesn't believe Jarrells will get out of prison soon.
"Going from the death penalty to life with parole," Zell said, "it's not something where the parole board would readily let him go."
Contact staff writer Tyler Jett at email@example.com or at 423-757-6476.