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Three Killers Executed in Arkansas : Punishment: The three had slain a businessman in 1981. Multiple execution is decried by some as ‘slaughter’ as others note its efficiency.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

In its second multiple execution in three months, Arkansas put three men to death Wednesday night for the murder of a businessman in his home in 1981 while his wife watched and his daughter was held at gunpoint.

The executions by lethal injection of James William Holmes, Darryl V. Richley and Hoyt Franklin Clines--carried out one after the other over three hours--was the first triple execution in the United States in 32 years. The last was in California in 1962.

Until three months ago, there had been no multiple executions in the United States since the Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty in 1976, overturning its 1972 ruling that the death penalty was cruel and unusual punishment.

The three men who died in Wednesday’s executions were all involved in the same crime and were tried together. The constitutionality of the joint trial was one of the issues argued during more than 12 years of appeals. The case went twice to a federal appeals court and then to the U.S. Supreme Court.

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Richley, 43, whose execution came an hour earlier than scheduled because of last-minute appeals for Holmes, was given only 10 minutes’ warning. He was not able to read a last letter from his brother or to write a last letter to his family.

“It’s like leading hogs to slaughter. . . . You have no dignity,” his attorney, Mark Cambiano said angrily as he left the prison. “I’m ashamed to live in Arkansas, the only state that carries out mass executions.”

All three men were executed in a small white concrete room, called the Arkansas Death Chamber, that has an adjacent viewing room. Each man walked into the chamber, was laid down on the chamber’s one gurney, his head and hands strapped down with leather restraints.

The first to die was Clines, 37. He lay on the gurney, breathing quietly, sighing once. When asked whether he had any last words he replied: “Nope.” After five minutes he appeared to go to sleep, and he was pronounced dead 10 minutes after being given the lethal injection.

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Richley was pronounced dead six minutes after being injected. Witnesses said that his breathing seemed to labor, his hands seemed to turn blue and his foot twitched. He too had no last words.

Holmes, 37, was pronounced dead 13 minutes after being injected and also had no last words.

The bodies were removed in body bags after the executions. All three had chosen lethal injection over electrocution.

The three were originally to have been executed in the order of their prison serial numbers--Clines SK886, Holmes SK887, Richley SK888. But prison officials dropped Holmes to third while his final appeal was being considered.

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The triple execution is one more manifestation of increasing public support in opinion polls for the death penalty in the United States.

Multiple executions were resumed in May, when Arkansas executed two black men whose convictions were unrelated. Such executions were the norm in the United States until the 1960s, familiar to many Americans in images such as photographs of the public mass hangings of the conspirators in the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln.

The largest multiple execution, according to figures from the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, involved eight people in Virginia in 1951. Seventeen different states had executed four or more.

In most states, opposition to the death penalty also has become a major political liability for politicians. It was a major factor in helping California Sen. Dianne Feinstein win the Democratic nomination for her seat over former state Atty. Gen. John Van de Kamp in 1992.

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It is also emerging as an issue in the governor’s race between incumbent Pete Wilson, a death penalty supporter, and Democrat Kathleen Brown, who has had reservations about it for years. Brown has softened her opposition, declaring that she would enforce the state’s death penalty.

Only eight protesters showed up outside the Cummins Unit correctional facility here for Wednesday’s executions. Another 40 protested by candlelight at the governor’s mansion in Little Rock.

Death penalty opponents have argued that the practice of multiple executions is barbaric. “What we are about to witness in Arkansas is a shocking spectacle,” Diann Rust-Tierney, director of the Capitol Punishment Project for the American Civil Liberties Union, said before the executions. “The notion that Arkansas is getting into this assembly-line mentality doesn’t fit with our society’s respect for life.”

Kica Matos of the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People’s Legal Defense Fund said that the practice “takes away from the individuality of the person.”

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Many law enforcement officials, however, favor multiple executions because of their efficiency and cost savings. Multiple executions “save the taxpayers a considerable amount of money,” Dennis Martin, executive director of the National Assn. of Chiefs of Police, said recently, so “we certainly encourage (them).”

Arkansas officials have said multiple executions reduce overtime and stress on employees. “Nobody wants to get up in the morning and go kill somebody,” Correction Department spokesman Alan Ables said earlier this year.

Holmes, Richley, Clines and a fourth man, Ray Orndorff, 35, were convicted of bursting through the front door of Donald Lehman’s house 13 years ago and beating him while trying to rob the house. Lehman tried to escape to his bedroom and called to his wife, Virginia, to get his gun. As he entered the bedroom he was shot several times in the chest with a .22-caliber handgun as Virginia Lehman huddled in a corner. The couple’s daughter, Vicki, was being held in another part of the house at gunpoint.

Witnesses testified that the men had boasted a week earlier at a party that they were planning to rob “some rich old (man)” in the town where Lehman lived and might have to kill him.

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The death sentence for Orndorff was overturned when it was discovered that Vicki Lehman’s testimony differed under hypnosis from her earlier recollections. When the Lehman family said it did not wish to endure another sentencing hearing, the state agreed that Orndorff be sentenced to life without parole.

Three and a half hours before he was expected to die, Holmes won a stay of execution in a 2-to-1 decision by a three-judge panel of the U.S. 8th District Court of Appeals on the grounds that he had had ineffective counsel. The stay was overruled two hours later by the full appeals court.

The Supreme Court declined to hear clemency appeals from the three.


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