This article was published in collaboration with the Marshall Project.
Arkansas, which has not put anyone to death since 2005, is about to embark on a grimly accelerated task. The state plans to execute seven men—a full fifth of its death row—over 11 days beginning later this month.
The rapid-fire executions, set to begin April 17, were prompted by a looming expiration date on the state's store of the sedative midazolam, one of the pharmaceuticals used in its lethal injection protocol and an increasingly difficult drug to obtain. The plan has attracted a flood of publicity, and a rush of activity.
Lawyers are contesting the state's lethal injection law, and anti-death penalty advocates are arguing that midazolam has been implicated in botched executions elsewhere. Nearly two-dozen former corrections officials from other states sent an open letter to Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson about the potential harm to the mental health of correctional officers. Virgin Group founder Richard Branson has warned that the executions might imperil the state's trade relations with Europe, and a crowdfunding campaign aims to help family members of the men make final visits. Meanwhile, some of the men are filing last-minute appeals and appearing before the parole board to ask for clemency*.
While the timetable is unusual, the cases themselves have hallmarks common to capital cases in America. In most, although not all, the families of victims support the death sentence. Lawyers and advocates for the defendants have investigated the life stories of their clients, presenting evidence of poverty, abuse, and mental illness that may not have been considered at trial.
Last month, advocates at the Fair Punishment Project, affiliated with Harvard Law School, issued a report summarizing this evidence in each of the Arkansas cases, as well as numerous instances in which trial defenders failed to present it in court—a common scenario, not just in Arkansas.
Here's who is scheduled to be executed, compiled from appellate records, news reports, and the research of the Fair Punishment Project.
Bruce Earl Ward
EXECUTION DATE: APRIL 17
SENTENCED TO DEATH: 1997
Late one night in August 1989, a Little Rock police officer noticed that 18-year-old Rebecca Lynn Doss was missing from the convenience store where she worked. He then saw Bruce Ward leaving the store's restroom.
Doss's body was later found on the men's room floor, and Ward was arrested for strangling her. He had previously pleaded guilty to manslaughter in the 1977 death of Janet Needham, a 32-year-old housewife in northwestern Pennsylvania who left a bar with him after arguing with her husband, according to prosecutors. Ward had worked as a perfume salesman and was known around Little Rock for propositioning women. He was in and out of homeless shelters. "He had this glazed look in his eyes," the owner of a cafe where Ward had tried to sell perfume told the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette shortly after his arrest. "He kind of looked through you."
Ward's case has featured an ongoing dispute about his mental health. After his arrest, he spent time at Arkansas State Hospital before he was found competent to stand trial for Doss's murder. Years later, he was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia. Dr. William S. Logan, who evaluated Ward in 2008, found that his schizophrenia "did compromise his rational understanding of the proceedings [at trial], and prevented him from having the ability to meaningfully assist his attorney in his defense."
Since then, his lawyers have argued that executing him would violate the Supreme Court's ban on killing those deemed "insane." In 2015, a psychiatrist said that Ward "views his incarceration and the proposed sentence as harassment by evil or demonic forces which God has temporarily allowed" and that he is being prepared "for a special mission as an evangelist."
Don William Davis
EXECUTION DATE: APRIL 17
SENTENCED TO DEATH: 1991
Don Davis was sentenced to death for the 1990 murder of Jane Daniel, after being convicted of shooting her in the course of burglarizing her home. After the murder, he fled to Nevada, California, and New Mexico, where he pawned some of the items from her home. She was discovered by her husband Richard Daniel in their basement. Daniel's neighbors also testified that Davis had stolen from them.
Davis has expressed remorse and says that he has transformed while on death row. "What I did was an act of cowardice," he told Arkansas Matters in 2015. "It was cold-blooded; it was evil….There is nothing in this world that I wouldn't give to change that moment—there is nothing that I can do."
Davis has had multiple execution dates set in the past; each was stayed over litigation concerning Arkansas's lethal injection drugs.
The victim's family supports Davis's execution and has complained about the length of the appeals process. "The case is never over," Daniel's daughter Susan Khani told a reporter in 2015. "It just keeps on going and going. It sleeps some... wakes up again and sleeps some... and wakes up again."
Davis's lawyers have argued that he suffers from intellectual disabilities, and has not received a comprehensive mental health evaluation—an oversight on the part of his trial defenders. Advocates from the Fair Punishment Project argue that because so little investigation has been done by Davis's lawyers, "the full extent of his impairments will likely never be known."
EXECUTION DATE: APRIL 20
SENTENCED TO DEATH: 1997
Stacey Johnson faces execution for the 1993 murder of Carol Heath, who was found beaten and strangled in her apartment, her throat slit. His original conviction was reversed by the Arkansas Supreme Court, because a police officer testified Ashley Heath, the victim's six-year-old daughter, picked Johnson from a lineup, even though she was found not competent to testify. But she was allowed to testify at Johnson's second trial.
Johnson maintains his innocence and has asked the Arkansas Supreme Court to stay his execution so that evidence, including hairs from Heath's apartment, can be subjected to DNA testing. Johnson's attorneys have argued that Ashley Heath was pressured by family members and law enforcement to testify that she had seen Johnson.
Ashley Heath maintains that Johnson killed her mother but asked the state parole board in 2015 to stop his execution, saying that she forgave him. "I am ready to put it behind me and move on with my life," she said. Carol Heath's son and sister both disagreed and supported the death sentence.
The Fair Punishment Project argues that Johnson's attorneys have failed to adequately investigate his past and look for evidence that may have convinced a jury to spare his life. "We found no evidence that his lawyers ever conducted a thorough life history investigation, a basic staple of effective representation in a death penalty case," they wrote.
EXECUTION DATE: APRIL 20
SENTENCED TO DEATH: 1995
Even among death penalty cases, which are known for their complexity, the case of Ledelle Lee stands out. He was sentenced to death for the 1993 fatal bludgeoning of 26-year-old Debra Reese, having previously been convicted of two separate rapes in the Jacksonville, Arkansas, area. He was later accused of the strangulation murder of 22-year-old Christine Lewis in 1989, but a jury deadlocked, and prosecutors decided not to retry him after his death sentence for Reese's murder.
In the lead-up to trial, Lee argued that his attorneys had a conflict of interest, because they had been appointed to defend him in other cases and might need to use defense strategies that would work at cross purposes. Lee sued his own lawyers in order to strengthen this conflict of interest claim, but Judge Chris Piazza (who earlier in his career prosecuted some of the men up for execution this month) ruled there was no conflict of interest. A jury deadlocked 11-1 on whether Lee was guilty of Reese's murder, but it was later discovered that the holdout juror had been represented by one of Lee's attorneys.
At a second trial, prosecutors argued that Lee had knocked on Reese's door, asking to borrow tools to fix his car, before barging in and beating Reese to death with a tire thumper. "He's a hunter," a prosecutor told the jurors. "This is his habitat." Reese had gotten married seven months earlier to Billy Reese, a cross-country truck driver, who supported the death penalty for Lee.
Lee maintains his innocence in the Reese murder.
On appeal, Lee's case was marked by a series of defense attorneys whose work was questioned. The Arkansas Supreme Court noted that one of his defenders had a substance abuse problem, and was found to have been "rambling incoherently, repeatedly interjecting 'blah, blah, blah,' into his statements." Even a prosecutor asked that Lee be appointed new counsel.
The court gave him a new lawyer, who missed a filing deadline for an appeal and ignored Lee's letters and phone calls and was referred to the state's Committee on Professional Conduct. Another of Lee's appeals lawyers surrendered his law license voluntarily in 2016 because of mental health problems. Throughout the appellate process, some of Lee's attorneys have argued that his trial defenders failed to adequately investigate his past for mitigating evidence—including claims that he is intellectually disabled—that might have convinced the jury to give him a life sentence.
Jack Harold Jones
EXECUTION DATE: APRIL 24
SENTENCED TO DEATH: 1996
Jack Jones was sentenced to death in 1996 for the rape and murder of Mary Phillips, a 34-year-old bookkeeper in the small town of Bald Knob, an hour's drive from Little Rock.
Lacy Phillips, the victim's nine-year-old daughter, testified at trial that a man who matched Jones's description had entered the accounting business where her mother worked, forced the two of them to lie down, and took cash from a register. She said that he choked her until she passed out and hit her with a gun. She woke up as police were investigating the crime scene, where her mother had been found, strangled and bludgeoned. Using the girl's description of the suspect, police found Jones, and he confessed to the murder.
On appeal, Jones's lawyers argued that his jury never heard powerful evidence that might have mitigated his sentence. He suffered from bipolar disorder and regularly hallucinated. Family members told Jones's appellate defense team that he would "rock and bang his head against the cupboards." He had been sexually abused, and he attempted suicide at least twice. He had voluntarily committed himself to a psychiatric facility months before the murder. His appellate defenders also pointed out that his trial lawyers admitted to only spending a total of $6,641.95 preparing his defense—a full investigation can cost tens of thousands of dollars—and used an expert who was later found by the state medical board to be "incompetent to practice medicine to such an extent as to endanger the public."
In 2003, Jones's DNA was matched to another murder victim, Lorraine Anne Barrett, who had been found dead in a Fort Lauderdale, Florida, motel room in 1991. He pleaded guilty to this murder as well. A sister of Barrett wrote in an online forum in 2007, "Let's stop playing games and get busy with this execution!"
Marcel W. Williams
EXECUTION DATE: APRIL 24
SENTENCED TO DEATH: 1997
Early one morning in 1994, 22-year-old Stacy Errickson was abducted by Marcel Williams from a gas station in Jacksonville, near Little Rock. He forced her to withdraw money from multiple ATM machines. Nine days later, he was arrested on an outstanding warrant for a separate crime, and he confessed to the kidnapping but said Errickson was still alive. Her body was later found buried in a shallow grave.
He was sentenced to death in 1997. On appeal, Williams's defenders found that his trial lawyers had failed to discover that their client had suffered from abuse throughout his life. As a child and into his teenage years, he was pimped out by his mother in exchange for food and lodging. She also beat him with extension cords she had boiled. He was gang-raped while serving time in an adult prison.
Williams's jury had not heard this evidence, and federal Judge Leon Holmes in 2007 reversed his death sentence. "It is reasonably probable that but for the errors and omissions of his lawyers the jury would have returned a verdict to impose a sentence of life imprisonment without parole rather than a sentence of death," Holmes wrote. The Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals overturned the lower court, arguing that federal courts could not examine evidence not presented in state courts, and re-instituted his death sentence.
At a recent clemency hearing, Errickson's mother, Carolyn Moore, asked for the execution to be carried out, as did Trista Wussick, who was babysitting the victim's children at the time of the murder. "Marcel Williams is my boogie man," Wussick said. "He doesn't deserve any mercy." But Dina Windle, who Williams abducted and raped before the Errickson murder, said she did not want him to be executed. "This man has turned his life around, and he's found God," she said, asking the board to allow him to be a mentor to other prisoners.
Williams also addressed the board. "Being in this situation has forced me to look at myself, and sometimes you don't like the person you see looking back at you," he said. "So you do what you can to change that, and I've tried." The board voted against recommending clemency.
Kenneth D. Williams
EXECUTION DATE: APRIL 27
SENTENCED TO DEATH: 2000
In 1999, Kenneth Williams was less than a month into a life sentence—for the murder of University of Arkansas student Dominique Hurd the year before—when he hid in a garbage truck that was leaving a prison in Grady, Arkansas. He snuck into the home of 57-year-old Cecil Boren, who had been the warden at the prison years earlier and was retired.
Williams shot Boren and took his pickup truck. He was captured in Missouri after a traffic accident, in which a delivery driver named Michael Greenwood was killed.
Williams was sentenced to death. On appeal, he argued that his trial defenders failed to present evidence that he suffered throughout his life from severe learning disabilities and problems stemming from earlier head injuries and was physically abused by his father, who used crack cocaine and also once kidnapped his mother. Williams had first entered a juvenile lock-up when he was 9 years old. Though his attorneys argued that jurors never heard this evidence, Williams was not granted a new trial.
From prison, Williams wrote a letter to the Pine Bluff Commercial, confessing to shooting another man, Jerrell Jenkins, the same day he killed Hurd. "I take full responsibility for my actions and whatever consequences my peers see fit," he wrote, adding that he had become a Christian and wanted to confess his sins.
The Arkansas Parole Board recommended that the governor deny Williams's request for clemency. "I wanted to appear before the board so I could show them I was no longer the person I once was," Williams wrote for VICE last week. "God has transformed me, and even the worst of us can be reformed and renewed."
*The governor originally scheduled eight men to be executed, but one of them, Jason McGehee, earned a recommendation for clemency from the board, leading a federal judge to stay his execution.
**Correction 4/18/17: An earlier version of this story misspelled Ledell Lee's first name.