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Death Penalty Debate : How to Treat Youngsters Who Murder

Times Staff Writer

Ronald Ward was sitting in his choral music class here at West Junior High School when a messenger summoned him to the principal’s office.

He had been there before, guilty of skipping school and disobeying teachers’ orders, but the problem the morning of April 18 was different. Two carloads of police detectives wanted to see him. They said he had brutally murdered two elderly women and a 12-year-old boy.

Late on the evening of Sept. 19, a jury agreed. The jurors then expressed a desire to push on with the sentencing portion of their task. They began deliberating at 20 minutes past midnight and took half an hour to decide: The defendant should die.

In this fashion, Ward, 15 when arrested and convicted, became the youngest prisoner on Death Row in the country.

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Heated Arguments

All manner of heated arguments can be heard here for why Ward drew the death penalty.

Some think it relevant that Ward is black, the three murder victims and 12 jurors white. Some find it worth mentioning that the judge and prosecutor excluded from the jury all who expressed reservations about the death penalty.

Others see the matter in less complicated terms. They believe citizens in this northeast corner of Arkansas, across the Mississippi River from Tennessee, simply like capital punishment a good deal better than they do savage murders.

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What mostly everyone can agree upon is that sentencing a boy of 15 to death is a hard business.

Ward sobbed and trembled the night the verdict came down. Most of the jurors cried during their deliberations. One had to be carried down the courthouse stairs afterward. The judge said that upholding the jury’s sentence “was the hardest thing I have ever done as a lawyer.” The jury foreman said, “I never want to serve on a jury again.”

‘We Had No Choice’

However, the foreman, Weldon Roberts, a civilian technician with the Air National Guard, also said: “From the evidence we heard, we had no choice. I wish we had. But we didn’t.”

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In just such terms a troubling dilemma presents itself in courtrooms across the country.

As states return to use of the death penalty and display increased willingness to process juveniles through the adult criminal justice system, they must decide how to handle youngsters who perform monstrous acts.

Thirty-five prisoners sit on Death Rows in 16 states for crimes committed when under the age of 18, according to Victor L. Streib, a law professor and juvenile justice specialist at Cleveland State University. Three others besides Ward arrived there when 15. The list shrank by one last month when Texas executed Charles Rumbaugh for a murder he committed when 17.

In this century, more than 100 juveniles have been executed before their 18th birthday. The youngest and latest, Streib said, was George Junius Stinney Jr., who went to the South Carolina electric chair in 1944 at age 14.

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Most of the young convicts’ stories, full of parents who ran off and unguided lives on the streets, evoke pity. Most of their deeds, full of rapes and beatings and murders, evoke horror.

So it is little surprise that the matter of Ron Ward has brought to this Arkansas town all sorts of emotions, but few answers.

“The stinker is, these are not men and not boys,” said Joseph B. Brown Jr., Ward’s attorney. “The hardest thing in this case was that my client’s a child and really had no controlling parents. The grandmother who raised him is senile, bless her soul. People oppose abortion and sex education, make no provision to deal with the resulting parentless children; then when these children go ahead and do what can be expected, people want to kill them.”

Particularly Brutal Crime

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Ward, though, stands convicted of a particularly brutal crime.

The jury concluded that he took a butcher knife to two elderly sisters and their great-grandnephew, a 12-year-old boy. Audrey A. Townsend, 72, was stabbed eight times and raped. Lois Townsend Jarvis, 75, was stabbed six times. Christopher Simmons, 12, a member of the local boys club and a carrier for the town newspaper, was stabbed five times. Ward’s fingerprints were everywhere in the old ladies’ simple four-room house.

David Burnett, the circuit judge who presided at the trial, said: “The tragedy in the Ronald Ward story is he’s a victim of a society that allowed him to live in a situation where he had no guidance or control. But Attila the Hun probably had unfortunate circumstances, too. One purpose of our system is to protect and exact retribution.”

Not all states have settled on that answer.

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While Ward’s trial was beginning here, so was another one near Beloit, Wis. Two boys, 14 and 12, and a girl, 11, were charged with bludgeoning and stabbing to death a 9-year-old playmate, in part because he would not share his bike.

Wisconsin law does not allow youths under 16 to be treated as adults, so neither the names of those charged nor the details of their crimes could be made public. The prosecutor could only ask that the defendants be judged delinquent. The stiffest sentence possible would be confinement at a state home until 19.

35 States Permit Executions

Of the 35 states that permit capital punishment, half a dozen limit it to convicts who were over 18 when the crime was committed. One of these is California. Another is Tennessee, just six miles across the Mississippi from where Ward stood trial.

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A handful of states set limits of 15, 16, or 17. Seven states put the limit at 14. Indiana makes it 10.

Fourteen states have no minimum age. As it happens, one of those is Arkansas.

It was a neighbor girl, Deborah Robinson, 11, who first noticed the old ladies’ purses on the lawn near their home at 318 S. 20th on the morning of April 12. When she and her grandmother went to knock at their door, a glass pane fell out. It looked like a break-in. They called the police.

The detectives, grim and tight-lipped, found Townsend’s body sprawled on the blood-streaked floor. The boy was curled at her feet in a fetal position. Jarvis was on the bed. A butcher knife with a seven-inch blade lay in the bathroom sink.

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“When we catch who did this, I’ll be sure to read him his rights,” one of the cops muttered.

A Rush to Buy Guns

Citizens stared at the banner headlines in the local newspaper and rushed to buy guns and ammunition. The mayor of West Memphis, Leo Chitman, felt it necessary at a press conference on April 17 to remind residents that “we have a Police Department that is in charge. Shooting first and calling the ambulance later is not a reasonable position.”

The break in the case came quickly.

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Ricky Vail, a neighbor who lives across the street from the murder scene, had seen and talked to a black youth walking through his backyard late that night. Vail thought the boy seemed under the influence of something, for his speech was slurred and dragging. At the police station, Vail picked out Ward’s photo from a school annual.

The police first questioned Ward on April 16. With him at the station but not in the interrogation room was the grandmother who raised him, Lena Ward, 73, a stocky woman disabled with a heart ailment. The youth denied all.

In Arkansas, authorities by law are not allowed to fingerprint juveniles before they are charged with a crime. However, Ward and his grandmother agreed to sign waivers. His prints matched some of those found in the murder house. So the police came to get Ward at his junior high school.

He lived just a mile from the murder scene. Although 15, he was repeating the seventh grade for the third year. He had a boy’s unmenacing face, but at a lanky 5-foot-10, he towered over his classmates.

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He had no criminal record, but in the last two or three years, there had been problems. He skipped school and homework. He picked on smaller children. He had been suspended two or three times for refusing to go to detention hall. One day last year, the school called the grandmother to say she had better come and get her boy. He had overdosed on a combination of drugs.

West Memphis is a relatively poor community, mainly an appendage of the big city across the river. It never fully developed on its own. The house where Ward grew up, at 2313 Autumn Ave., differs little from many others here. It is a small, unadorned wood bungalow.

Lena Ward’s worn, pale eyes focused somewhere other than in the compact living room where she sat and talked one recent morning. Her voice struggled from her mouth in muffled phrases. She and her 83-year-old bedridden husband have survived on Social Security and disability payments for the last 15 years.

Her unmarried daughter, she said, gave her the baby in late 1969, soon after he was born. The daughter “used to come around once every two years, but then it got to a place where it was only every four or five years.” She hasn’t heard from her now in years.

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She remembers her grandson as an outgoing child who gave no problems, who wanted to be an airplane pilot or computer technician. What fights they had were over what the boy wanted to eat. “Candy and cookies. He loved his sweets. But he would break out.”

Then, two or three years ago, something went wrong. He stopped trying at school, and he didn’t mind anymore.

“Last year, he be kind of slow when I told him what to do. I don’t know what got into him.” The grandmother stared at a corner of the room, her voice trailing off.

There was that day when the school called about the drug overdose. Ward insisted that another student had slipped him spiked candy and it would never happen again. After that, though, some afternoons he came home from school tired and went straight to sleep. He started hanging out with older men.

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“Tell you the truth, I don’t know nothing about his friends,” the grandmother said.

The next time the school called, it was to say the police had picked up the boy for murder.

Response in the community to the arrest was mixed. Many were relieved, but some had trouble believing it was true. A good number agreed with a neighbor of the Wards, Ruby Sims, who said: “It would be too sick. I don’t see how one 15-year-old boy could commit murders like that.”

The day of the arrest, police taped a four-hour interrogation of Ward, with his grandmother but no lawyer present. Much of the recording later was played at the trial, over the objections of defense attorneys, who argued that the questioning was conducted illegally.

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Tell the truth, the grandmother said during the interrogation. The youth admitted that he was in the murder house. He said he had been forced at knifepoint to break in by a man named Crazy Ike, who also forced him to rape one of the women. Ward said he fled before any murders took place.

The idea that others were involved in the murder was believable to some. A purse-snatching burglary seemed little motive for a grisly triple murder.

Speculation on the streets--at least, on some streets--made out the murders to be a revenge killing, arranged by people interested in getting even with Bobby Simmons, father of the slain boy and great-nephew of the murdered sisters. Simmons once had plea-bargained to a charge of possessing narcotics with intent to sell. What was he involved with, some wondered, and whom had he angered?

However, Ward’s story kept changing.

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The next day at the preliminary hearing, the court appointed public defender Ken Cook to represent him. As Cook spoke with Ward in the hallway of the courthouse, West Memphis Detective Sgt. Gary Gitchell remained beside them, a tape recorder spinning in his pocket.

Ward’s private defense attorneys later would express dismay at what followed. Cook cautioned Ward that the recorder was on and what he said could be used against him in court. He asked the youth a number of routine questions. Then he asked Ward if there was anything else he wanted to say.

“Um, something just came over me, it’s just like, I didn’t mean to, just something came over me, something just came over me, made me go into that house. . . . I just wasn’t myself.”

Ward was sobbing. On the tape, an uncle, Jerry Ward, can be heard telling him: “Be a man, don’t cry now.”

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By law, Scott Hunter, the prosecutor for the six-county 2nd Judicial District of northeast Arkansas, can decide without court approval whether to charge a juvenile 14 or over in the adult system. He had no trouble making that decision. However, he did agonize about the capital murder charge, which mandates either the death penalty or life imprisonment without the possibility of parole.

Hunter thought about Ward’s physical and mental maturity, and he thought about the nature of the crime, and he thought about statistics that show teen-agers cause a growing percentage of violent crime. He considered the victims and the multiple stab wounds. There had been a rape, although that was not included in the formal charges, and the crime had started with a house break-in.

The prosecutor knew of the theories about a drug revenge killing. He also knew there was a fellow in the community named John Golden who claimed to have heard two men plotting the murder. Police investigators said they had checked out the sketchy leads and found no evidence that others were involved.

Unidentified Fingerprints

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Police did find fingerprints at the murder scene that could not be identified. But who knew how long they had been there or who else had visited the house in recent days? It was just as likely that Ward had intended a simple burglary and was surprised to find Chris Simmons in the old ladies’ house. Chris shared two classes with Ward and could identify him. Perhaps that is why the three were killed.

It did not matter, for by law the state need not prove a motivation.

“I don’t go into the psychology of this,” Hunter said recently. “It shakes me up to send a 15-year-old to Death Row, but I have to think of the law of the state and of the three victims hurled into eternity. I feel what I did was my job as a prosecutor. I’m not crowing about it. It is a bad thing all around.”

Citizens here disagree over when and how the Ward case came to be more a racial conflict than a matter of hard facts and anguished decisions about a 15-year-old.

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NAACP Recruited Lawyer

There are those who suggest that it began when Memphis defense attorney Joe Brown, a husky black man with a goatee, recruited by the local chapter of the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People to replace the public defender, started saying a black boy who killed three white people could never get a fair trial in Arkansas.

Others contend that it began during jury selection, when the prosecutor sent investigators to question neighbors and employers about certain prospective jurors’ attitudes--and then used eight peremptory challenges to block every prospective black juror. An all-white jury, it was argued, certainly looked questionable in a county that is almost 40% black.

Whatever else, this part of the affair was familiar. Almost three-fourths of all juveniles executed in this country’s history were black, according to statistics compiled by Streib, the law professor. Like the U.S. population as a whole, 90% of their victims were white. About two-thirds of all juvenile executions have taken place in the South. The tangled question of juvenile executions is inextricably intertwined with matters of race.

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A number of people involved in the Ward case wish that were not the case.

The judge and jury foreman after the trial worked particularly hard to dispel notions of racism. Roberts talked of the black children he works with in a city-run adopt-a-school program. “If the jury had been green, the verdict would still have been the same,” he said. “This had nothing to do with race.”

B.J. Yarbrough said he truly wished he could believe that.

Yarbrough is former chairman of the local NAACP chapter, now head of its legal redress committee, which helped line up Ward’s defense counsel. He is also an auto mechanic with his own small shop, a stout, graying black man in his mid 60s, his face all jowls and creases, his baseball cap, hiking boots and blue work shirt covered with grease and dirt.

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He did not want to make a racial thing of this, he said late one afternoon as he finished tuning a car. This town didn’t burn when others did because he wouldn’t stand for it. He had fought in World War II and seen too much hate between blacks and whites. White soldiers wouldn’t go to mechanic’s class with him. Blacks wouldn’t help injured whites. Once he had to force his mess sergeant to share their provisions with a lost bunch of white soldiers. This sort of thing ate at his heart. That was why he had joined the NAACP when he got home.

‘Trying to Love You’

“I’m trying to love you despite the fact that you are white, and you me despite I’m black,” he said. “I want to make things not racial, to talk as fellow citizens. That’s why I don’t want to get into this. But I’m forced by this trial. It is racial. It’s obvious.”

Faced with such sentiments, the prosecutor chose to read a statement into the trial record after the jury was selected, although he is not required to explain his peremptory challenges. Because the NAACP and the defense attorneys had raised the racial issue, the prosecutor said, the state felt compelled to challenge otherwise qualified black jurors.

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“We had reasons for each challenge,” Hunter added later in an interview. “We investigated each prospective juror, and considered what they said. There was a prevalent, pervasive attitude in that community that one 15-year-old boy could not have done all this. And we felt others were just predisposed. Not all of that can be seen on the record. We look at demeanor, at how they react when questioned, at rapport. A lot is intuitive.”

When the defense asked for a mistrial because of the all-white jury, Judge Burnett, who once held Hunter’s job as prosecutor, found that there was “no systematic exclusion of blacks.”

Talking at his home after the trial, Burnett said: “I personally would have liked some blacks on the jury. The prosecution struck two ladies that I would have left on. It is unusual to get an all-white jury. But you are not entitled to a jury of your race--only your peers.”

As it happens, the U.S. Supreme Court has in the past considered just that question and will do so again this session.

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In 1965, the high court ruled that race bias in the selection of jurors violated the 14th Amendment, but said isolated instances of such bias were beyond the power of federal courts to fix. Since then, some federal appellate and state supreme courts have gone further, flatly banning racially biased peremptory challenges.

So the high court will once again address the issue, in the case of a black in Kentucky who is challenging his burglary conviction because the prosecutor dismissed all four prospective black jurors from the panel.

Views on Death Penalty

Other jurors in the Ward trial were excluded because of their views about the death penalty. The judge struck five who flatly said they could never sentence anyone to death. Again, the prosecutor and judge were putting a fundamental issue of law to the test.

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Most states exclude death penalty opponents from capital case juries, following rules laid out by the Supreme Court 17 years ago. However, the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals, whose jurisdiction includes Arkansas, ruled last January that jurors who oppose the death penalty can be excluded only from the penalty phase of a capital trial. The Arkansas Supreme Court disagrees, and Burnett decided to stick with his state’s holding. The U.S. Supreme Court this month agreed to reconsider the question.

If Ward’s conviction is reversed on appeal, it most likely will turn on these matters. However, in making his rulings, Burnett had other thoughts on his mind besides higher court decisions.

The judge remembered well another case that came up in this area several years ago when he was prosecutor. A 13-year-old boy emptied a pistol into a playmate, killing him. When the boy was treated as a juvenile and simply found delinquent, the community did not hide its displeasure.

Burnett also was partly aware of the case unfolding in Wisconsin at the time of Ward’s trial.

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Frustrated prosecutors up there never did come to understand just why three young children chased their 9-year-old playmate across a backyard, then stabbed and bludgeoned him to death. They weren’t even allowed to talk to the children. When they told the dead boy’s distraught grandmother that the 14-year-old’s trial had ended in a guilty verdict--that is, guilty of delinquency--she slumped to the floor, dead of a stroke.

Burnett could not imagine that happening in Arkansas. When the defense moved to treat Ward as a juvenile, he quickly denied the request.

Trial Lasted a Week

The trial began Sept. 12 and continued for one week.

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Ward’s lawyers, Joe Brown and his colleague based in Arkansas, Samuel Turner, faced more than one obstacle.

The NAACP chapter had hoped to raise a $20,000 defense fund, but came up with less than $5,000. That was not even enough for their investigator. Turner, a former minister whose legal specialty is personal injury cases, ended up working for free.

Their client was a bigger problem. Ward’s stories kept changing even to his lawyers.

“Ron is a classic example of everything teen-age defendants shouldn’t do,” Brown said after the trial. “He never told us everything. He made up details to cover his lying. I think there were others involved who forced him that night, but he was totally afraid of telling us certain details. He seemed more concerned about something else other than the death penalty.”

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Midway through the trial, the defense asked the judge to drop the capital murder charge and direct the jury to consider only first-degree murder, which does not carry the death penalty. Burnett refused.

Then the judge listened, without the jury present, to John Golden, a prospective defense witness, testify about hearing two men plot the murder. They were going to hang it on a boy named Ward, Golden said.

How did they know Ward would be there? Burnett asked. Golden did not know. The judge thought him less than credible. He ruled that Golden’s testimony was hearsay, and not admissible.

On the final day, Ward took the stand and told yet another variation of the story, his voice breaking at times.

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Stoned on Marijuana

Two men at gunpoint had forced him to help with the break-in. Then one of them had homosexually raped him and forced him to rape one of the women. Ward said he had been drinking beer and whiskey and was stoned on marijuana and Valium. He left before anyone was killed. He had lied before because he feared that the men would harm his grandparents and he was embarrassed about being raped.

The jury retired at 8 p.m. on Thursday, Sept. 19, to begin deliberations.

Roberts, the jury foreman, later said Ward had been the prosecution’s best witness. All the different stories and conflicting tapes made him plain unbelievable. At 10 p.m., after two hours of contemplation, the jury delivered the guilty verdict.

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The courtroom was a hall of tears. In one corner, Ward’s family and friends sobbed. The Simmons family, sitting in the front two rows, cried. Some jurors wept.

However, the night was not over.

The jurors advised the judge that they wanted to continue, to retire again and decide the sentence. Three times, the judge implored them to go home.

“I tried to have them come back the next day,” Burnett said. “I was tired and drained myself. I gave them several chances. But what do you do when the jury says it doesn’t want to rest? “

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The jury foreman explained: “We all thought it would just prolong the personal agony. We couldn’t go home and then come back because we couldn’t have slept. Also, the next day we would have had giant media attention. The jurors didn’t want that.”

Defense attorney Brown was beside himself. He had planned to call a host of witnesses during the sentencing hearing.

Golden’s testimony about two mystery men, not admissible at trial, probably could get in then. More important, Brown wanted to establish mitigating circumstances by calling family members, people from the community, behavioral experts. That the boy was abandoned at 3 months and raised by tired old people seemed relevant to Brown. Juveniles, he reasoned, are fundamentally entitled to benevolent custody.

Now, however, it was well past 10 p.m., and most of Brown’s witnesses had gone home. The judge gave him an hour to round up whom he could.

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Brown hustled Ward’s aunt, Johnnie Ward, from her home to the courthouse. He found an acquaintance of Golden who knew part of that story. He could find no one else. The sentencing hearing began after 11 p.m. and lasted about one hour. The jury retired again at 12:20 a.m.

Jurors Felt Anguished

It may not have mattered. The jury had pretty much decided the sentence when deliberating the verdict, what with the amount of evidence and nature of the crime.

“The 30 minutes we took on the sentence was not to discuss. It was just to read the rules and sign the sheets,” Roberts said.

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Ward’s age was not much of an issue. The jurors felt anguished, particularly a schoolteacher and guidance counselor who deals daily with children Ward’s age. Even though it would not affect the sentence, a few wanted to list Ward’s youth and lack of significant criminal history as mitigating circumstances. The majority refused.

“If he were 8 or 9, maybe,” Roberts said. “But he was big, mature. You can never draw a line, I don’t think. You can’t measure by years. A 17-year-old may be more a child than a 15-year-old. Some children grow up faster. I would hate arbitrary limits.”

When the death sentence was pronounced in court just before 1 a.m., the gathering of more than 100 responded with gasps and silence. Judge Burnett at first felt surprise. He had not thought 12 people would agree to send a 15-year-old to death. Considering the evidence, though, he decided that he was not that surprised.

Burnett could have overruled the jury. “But the evidence was horrendous and the jurors had searched their souls,” he said. “Grown men on that jury were in tears. I thought, to undo the decision they had agonized over would almost be a travesty of the judicial system.”

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Burnett set the execution date for April 12, 1986, one year to the day after the bodies had been found.

The jurors, many still sobbing, were led to their cars by court bailiffs, having earlier expressed concern for their safety. Reporters rushed to question the lawyers.

“This decision sends a message to the community that age does not make a difference when murder is committed,” the prosecutor said.

Hunter was asked about the all-white jury. “It was one human being killing three other human beings,” he said.

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A good number in this region, however, continued to view the matter quite differently. It was not so much Ward’s guilt they doubted as it was the fairness and civility of the proceedings.

A black radio station in Memphis, WDIA, broadcast editorials denouncing the jury’s composition and speedy work. The station called upon citizens to sign letters and petitions of protest. On Oct. 2, the station’s general manager, Ernest Jackson Jr., delivered tens of thousands of signatures to Gov. Bill Clinton’s pardons counsel in Little Rock, Arkansas’ capital.

Cell Mate a Cop Killer

“Why couldn’t the jury go home and rest and think over what to do?” asked Yarbrough, the NAACP official and car mechanic. “When I go sleep on something overnight, sometimes I arrive at another opinion. Or sometimes I keep the same one. But I have a chance to think it through. At least, that is how it appears to me.”

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Ward made the headlines once again in recent days when it was learned that his Death Row cell mate was a 33-year-old cop killer with a history of mental problems. Soon after a prison spokesman explained the pairing by saying the two were “compatible,” Ward was transferred to a cell with three other men aged 26 to 47. Asked at a jail-house press conference what he would change about his life, the youth said, “mostly everything.”

In a community divided and anguished by the Ward case, it happens that no one was left more dissatisfied than Bobby Simmons, who lost his son and great-aunts.

In a phone conversation marked by angry shouting and anguished sobs, he canceled one appointment to talk about the case. Days later he placed a long-distance call to apologize--and explain.

He wanted it known that he was “able to call a lot of black people my friends when I couldn’t do that with my own kin.” His youngest child’s godfather is black. So he couldn’t be a racist, and this part of the Ward case pained him greatly.

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There was something else he wanted to say. His mother had died in an auto accident when he was 10 and he had never known his father. He had been raised by his aunts and a grandmother. He had grown up on the streets himself and had been “in and out of a lot of stuff.” Now 34, he knew what it was like to be a young punk.

He believed someone older may have bluffed Ward into proving himself. From experience, Simmons knew that could happen. If so, the boy just had no business on the streets.

“I feel sorry for Ron Ward, and I hate to think of him on Death Row,” he said. “My daughter is dating a 15-year-old now and I see him. He’s just a kid.”

Still, Simmons said, Ward’s family can go visit him, they can see him, touch him, hear him. They have hope.

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“All I have to look at are pictures and gravestones. I wake up every morning and walk into the bedroom where I had two boys and now there is one. My son will never walk in the door or down the driveway.”

There just is no answer, Simmons felt.

“They’re gonna make what they will of this,” he said. “I’m a very private person. I’m nothing and never will be. Somewhere down the line, some lawyer or judge will make something big of all this. That’s up to the courts. I just need to be left alone. People keep asking me questions about this everyday. I can’t answer them, because I don’t know what I think.”


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