Inmates make bid to avoid double execution

VARNER, Ark. (AP) — Two Arkansas inmates scheduled for back-to-back lethal injections next month asked the parole board Friday to spare their lives, a longshot bid as the state prepares for an unprecedented four nights of double executions over a 10-day period.

While Texas has executed eight people in a month — twice in 1997 — no state in the modern era has executed that many prisoners in 10 days.

Stacey Johnson and a lawyer for Ledell Lee asked board members to recommend that Gov. Asa Hutchinson commute their sentences. Such efforts typically fail. The board planned to deliberate Friday afternoon in Little Rock after hearing from relatives of the men’s victims, but did not indicate when it would announce its decision.

Of the 27 people executed in Arkansas since 1990, 20 had clemency requests rejected and the others didn’t apply. In 1999, against the parole board’s recommendation, Gov. Mike Huckabee reduced Bobby Fretwell’s sentence to life without parole after a juror said he went along with Fretwell’s condemnation because he didn’t want to be ostracized in his small town.

Johnson and Lee are set to die April 20. Other double executions are set for April 17, 24 and 27.

A key execution drug, the controversial sedative midazolam, expires three days after Kenneth Williams is set to go to the death chamber.

Arkansas has had trouble obtaining the three lethal drugs it needs to put the men to death.

To address its trouble, Arkansas now extends secrecy to anyone involved in supplying drugs. A lawsuit filed Thursday by a Little Rock attorney contends Arkansas is violating the law by refusing to release documents proving they acquired three lethal drugs from legitimate sources.

The Arkansas Department of Correction used to release package inserts accompanying vials of the deadly drugs but says it no longer will do so because The Associated Press in 2015 used their distinct design to unmask the manufacturers.

Friday’s hearings were the first of five set over the coming week. Others are set Monday and next Friday.

“I’m about to lose my life for a crime I didn’t commit,” Johnson told the board at the Varner Unit prison, not far from where he is to be put to death.

Lee’s lawyer, Lee Short, said his client skipped the hearing with the belief that his due-process rights have been violated throughout the case.

“He’s got a skepticism of any government hearing, and one that is well-founded,” Short said.

The lawyer also complained that the inmates had too little time to put together a meaningful clemency request after their death warrants were signed less than four weeks ago.

Johnson, 47, was condemned for the 1993 death of Carol Heath, who was beaten and strangled and had her throat slit. DNA evidence included a hair found on Carol Heath’s body. A cigarette butt found in the pocket of a shirt left at a roadside park with Heath’s blood on it also had Johnson’s saliva on it.

Melissa Cassidy, Heath’s sister, urged the board to deny Johnson’s request and said the convicted killer had shown no remorse for the crime.

“It’s been hell I’ve been living in … I just want closure and I want justice to be done,” Cassidy told the board.

Lee, 51, was sentenced to die for the 1993 death of Debra Reese, a neighbor who was beaten to death in her home with a tire iron that her husband had given her for protection. She was struck 36 times. Parole board paperwork shows that Lee spells his first name “Ledell” but the Arkansas Department of Correction lists it as “Ledelle.”

Joseph Lucky, Reese’s son, called Lee “the embodiment of the evil that should never have to exist in this world.

“I’m just asking you to please give my family our closure. Deny his clemency, please,” he told the panel.

The eight inmates are also counting on other court challenges to block their executions. The inmates have asked the U.S. Supreme Court to reconsider its decision not to review a state court decision upholding Arkansas’ lethal injection law and protocol.


Associated Press Writer Kelly P. Kissel in Little Rock, Arkansas contributed to this report


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