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Arkansas officials aim to push ahead with executions

Top, from left: Don Davis, Stacey Johnson, Jack Jones and Ledell Lee; bottom, from left: Jason McGehee, Bruce Ward, Kenneth Williams and Marcel Williams.
(Arkansas Department of Correction)

The dates with death continue to loom over Arkansas.

Gov. Asa Hutchinson is moving ahead with the state’s plan to execute several men in an 11-day window this month, even as a federal court has granted a temporary reprieve to one of the condemned.

The state’s parole board this week recommended that Hutchinson commute the death sentence of Jason McGehee, who had been among the eight men scheduled to die between April 17 and 27, to life in prison without parole. But before Hutchinson could announce a decision, a federal judge ruled that McGehee’s execution should be put on hold for at least 30 days.

In an effort to act before the state’s supply of midazolam, an anesthetic used in the lethal injection cocktail, expires at the end of the month, Hutchinson set the execution dates of McGehee — along with the seven other men — during the final two weeks of April. Now, with the ruling by the federal judge, McGehee’s reprieve expands into May and past the expiration date of the drug. The parole board did not recommend that the sentences of any of the other men be commuted.

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“We’re pleased. It’s an appropriate decision,” John C. Williams, an assistant federal public defender representing McGehee, said Saturday.

McGehee has been on death row since 1997.

In 1996, McGehee, 40, along with two other men, kidnapped and killed John Melbourne Jr., 15, in Boone County, about 150 miles north of Little Rock. Prosecutors said he was the leader, and McGehee was the only one of the group sentenced to death.

This month, Josh Hendrix, Melbourne’s younger brother, urged the parole board not to spare McGehee’s life.

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“When you have a dog that attacks a child, you put the dog down,” Hendrix said. “I feel this man is an animal and he should be treated the way he did my brother.”

Even with McGehee’s life spared for the moment, no state has executed seven people in such a short span since the Supreme Court reinstated capital punishment in 1976. The closest was Texas, which executed eight men in May and June 1997, according to the nonprofit Death Penalty Information Center, which opposes capital punishment.

Opponents of the death penalty have assailed the executions as cruel and unusual punishment and have said that the likelihood of a botched executions — in which inmates take a long time to die — increases with so many in such a short time span.

Hutchinson, who has said the executions are necessary in order to bring justice to the victims’ families, has faced strong pushback. Members of the Arkansas ACLU and the Arkansas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty have held vigils outside his Little Rock mansion and urged people to sign petitions calling on the governor to halt the executions.

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“This many executions just creates a huge, huge risk for a botched execution, which will lead to suffering,” said Furonda Brasfield, executive director of the Arkansas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty. “It’s truly unheard of for a state to this.”

Brasfield, whose group is planning protests this month at Cummins Unit, the site of the lethal injection chamber, said the executions are placing a cloud over the state.

“Arkansas’ image will hurt because of these events,” she said.

In a recent op-ed in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, titled “Bloody Arkansas,” columnist Paul Greenberg suggested that Hutchinson serve as a witness to the executions. Arkansas law requires that at least six citizens who don’t know the victim or the condemned witness each execution, but the state has had trouble finding as many as 48 volunteers.

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Even as Hutchinson has indicated the executions will move forward, the Supreme Court at the last minute could intervene — a rare move by a court that tilts conservative.

Among the most recent stays by the Supreme Court came in November, when it granted a reprieve to Tommy Arthur in Alabama. Arthur was convicted of killing a man in 1982, but has maintained his innocence.

The men scheduled to die — among the 34 on death row in Arkansas — are Don Davis, Stacey Johnson, Jack Jones, Ledell Lee, Bruce Ward, Kenneth Williams and Marcel Williams. Arkansas has not executed a person since 2005, when it put to death Eric Nance.

While each of those men have sought reprieves, Jones recently expressed a desire to proceed with his execution April 24. He was convicted for the 1995 robbery, rape and murder of 34-year-old Mary Phillips and the attempted murder of her daughter, Lacy.

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Jones decided not to appear in person before the Arkansas parole board to ask for clemency, but instead asked his attorney to read from a letter he had written to Phillips’ family.

“I am so very, very sorry,” Jones’ attorney, Jeff Rosenzweig, read. “I haven’t wanted clemency ever. I have no interest in it.”

kurtis.lee@latimes.com

Twitter: @kurtisalee

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