LITTLE ROCK — A federal judge on Thursday granted a preliminary injunction postponing one of eight executions of Arkansas inmates planned for later this month.
Also Thursday, the Arkansas Supreme Court rejected motions by two of the condemned inmates for stays of their executions.
U.S. District Judge D.P. Marshall granted a preliminary injunction for Jason Ferrell McGehee, 40. A day earlier, the state Parole Board said it had voted 6-1 to recommend that Gov. Asa Hutchinson commute McGehee’s sentence to life without parole.
Judd Deere, spokesman for Attorney General Leslie Rutledge, said in a statement Thursday, “The victims’ families have waited far too long to see justice for their loved ones, and today’s decision from Judge Marshall allows all but one of the scheduled executions to move forward. Attorney General Rutledge will respond to any and all challenges that might occur between now and the executions as the prisoners continue to use all available means to delay their lawful sentences.”
Assistant Public Federal Defender John Williams, attorney for McGehee, said in a statement he was pleased with the ruling on McGehee’s execution.
“In his ruling, Judge Marshall was clearly troubled by the state’s clemency process,” Williams said. “Judge Marshall found the state has violated its own statutes and regulations. He was emphatic that the clemency process has been shoddy and arbitrary in many respects. And he made clear that this case will continue.”
Williams added, “Though the state succeeded in defending most of the plaintiffs’ current execution dates, there is little for the state to be proud of in that success.”
In February, Hutchinson set dates for eight executions between April 17 and 27, with two men each to be executed on four different days.
The state is seeking to kill the inmates before its supply of one of its execution drugs expires April 30. The execution schedule has drawn international attention because no state has executed so many people in so short a time in the modern era.
Six of the inmates have requested clemency. In recent days the Parole Board has recommended clemency for McGehee and recommended against clemency for four other inmates, with a clemency hearing for sixth inmate, Jack Jones, set for Friday.
The inmates seeking clemency filed a federal lawsuit and a motion for a preliminary injunction on March 28, alleging that the state’s accelerated execution schedule violates their due-process rights.
Arkansas Code Annotated 16-93-204(e) states that the Parole Board must announce its decision on a recommendation regarding pardon or commutation of a sentence at least 30 days before submitting its recommendation to the governor.
Marshall ruled Thursday that the state cannot carry out McGehee’s death sentence until the 30-day rule has been met and Hutchinson has acted on the board’s recommendation. The judge said the governor must notify him when he makes a decision on that recommendation.
Marshall also ordered the Parole Board to notify him when it announces a recommendation on Jones’ clemency request.
McGehee was scheduled to die April 27 for the 1996 slaying of 15-year-old John Melbourne Jr. in Boone County.
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 for clemency, 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.
Former state Department of Correction Director Ray Hobbs and retired Circuit Judge Robert McCorkindale, who presided over McGehee’s trial, support commutation of McGehee’s sentence to life without parole.
Family members of Melbourne have urged that McGehee’s clemency request be denied.
The Arkansas Supreme Court on Thursday denied, without comment, motions by Ledell Lee, 51, and Stacey Eugene Johnson, 47, for stays of their executions. Both are scheduled to die April 20.
Lee has been sentenced to death for the 1993 slaying of Debra Reese of Jacksonville. He claimed in his motion he needed time to present evidence that he had ineffective counsel at his trial and that the trial judge was biased.
Johnson has been sentenced to death for the 1993 slaying of Carol Jean Heath of De Queen. He claimed in his motion he needed time to seek testing of physical evidence from the crime scene.