LITTLE ROCK — The Arkansas Parole Board said Wednesday it is recommending that Gov. Asa Hutchinson spare the life of one of eight inmates scheduled to die in a series of executions this month.
The board also said it is recommending against clemency for one of the other inmates.
The board said in a news release it voted 6-1 to recommend clemency for Jason Ferrell McGehee, 40, who is scheduled to die on April 27 for the 1996 slaying of 15-year-old John Melbourne Jr. in Boone County. Chairman John Felts cast the only vote against recommending clemency.
A spokesman for Hutchinson said the governor will review McGehee’s case. The governor is not bound by the board’s recommendation.
Melbourne was beaten and tortured at a house in Harrison by a group led by McGehee who were angry that Melbourne told police about a theft ring. The group then drove Melbourne to an abandoned farmhouse near Omaha, beat him again and ultimately strangled him.
In his application seeking commutation of his sentence to life without parole, McGehee argued that the jury at his trial was prevented from hearing significant mitigating evidence, he was barely 20 when the crime occurred, he has adjusted well to prison, and his sentence was disproportionate to the lighter sentences his co-defendants received.
The judge who presided over the trial, Robert McCorkindale, now retired, wrote a letter to the Parole Board asking it to recommend that McGehee’s sentence be commuted to life without parole.
“The death of John Melbourne Jr. was the tragic result of a group dynamic gone wrong,” McCorkindale wrote in the letter. “John, like most of the boys involved, had little family support and fell into petty crime. In my opinion, the group were ‘wanna-bes’ and the group dynamic escalated the event into something that Jason individually never would have done.”
The Rev. Jack Harris, a volunteer chaplain for the Department of Correction, wrote to the board that he is confident McGehee would function well in the general population of a prison unit.
Assistant Federal Public Defender John Williams, McGehee’s attorney, issued a statement Wednesday calling on Hutchinson to commute McGehee’s sentence.
Williams noted that Ray Hobbs, former director of the state Department of Correction, also supports commutation for McGehee, that McGehee’s “near-perfect record in prison has impressed many people,” and that “two of his co-defendants who were equally, if not more, culpable received lesser sentences.”
The Parole Board also said Wednesday it voted 7-0 to recommend against clemency for Kenneth Williams, 38, who is scheduled to die on the same day as McGehee.
Williams was serving a life sentence for the 1998 killing of University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff cheerleader Dominique Hurd when he escaped from the Cummins Unit in Lincoln County in 1999. He killed Cecil Boren, 57, at Boren’s nearby home, stole Boren’s truck and was captured after a high-speed chase in Missouri during which he crashed into a vehicle and killed the driver, Michael Greenwood, 24, of Springfield, Mo.
Williams is sentenced to die for Boren’s killing. He also is serving three sentences of life without parole.
The Parole Board said it is recommending against commuting Williams’ sentence because of the seriousness of the offense and because his sentence was not excessive and he had multiple victims.
In recent days the board also has recommended against clemency for condemned inmates Stacey Johnson, Ledell Lee and Marcel Williams, and it is scheduled to hold a clemency hearing for inmate Jack Jones on Friday. Two other inmates did not apply.
Arkansas is scheduled to execute eight inmates between April 17 and April 27. The state is seeking to carry out the executions before its supply of one of its execution drugs expires April 30.
The plan has received international attention because no state has executed as many prisoners in so short a space of time in the modern era.
Arkansas has not executed an inmate since 2005 because of legal challenges and difficulty obtaining execution drugs.