Life of 1 Arkansas death-row inmate should be spared, Parole Board says

Jason McGehee

The life of Jason McGehee -- one of eight Arkansas inmates scheduled to die this month by lethal injection -- should be spared, the Arkansas Parole Board said Wednesday.

In a 6-1 vote, the Parole Board said McGehee's plea for clemency has merit. A statement from the board did not explain the majority's reasoning.

Board Chairman John Felts cast the lone objection, saying McGehee's sentence was not excessive considering the age of his victim and the seriousness of the crime. McGehee was convicted in the 1996 kidnapping, beating and killing of 15-year-old John Melbourne Jr.

Instead of an execution in the Cummins Unit death chamber on April 27, McGehee has asked that his sentence be reduced to life in prison without parole.

Meanwhile, another hurdle was removed Wednesday in carrying out the rest of the executions. Arkansas Department of Correction Director Wendy Kelley said Wednesday that the state has received more than enough applications to fill the required witness spots for each execution.

Last month, Kelley told a Little Rock Rotary Club that the department was seeking volunteers to fill the six to 12 public witness spots for each execution. She declined to tell reporters Wednesday how many people had applied or when the state reached the minimum number needed. She said the list was still being finalized.

The executions are to be carried out in pairs between April 17 and April 27. The Parole Board has considered clemency for five of the men and decided that each case except for McGehee's was without merit.

The most recent denial was that of Kenneth Williams. The Parole Board announced its decision in that case along with its favorable decision toward McGehee. The board will consider the case of a sixth condemned prisoner, Jack Jones Jr., on Friday.

The clemency decision is ultimately up to Gov. Asa Hutchinson. However, state law dictates that before any clemency can be granted, 30 days must be allowed as a public comment period.

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That timeline in McGehee's case would extend into May, and by then one of Arkansas' three execution drugs will have expired.

McGehee's lawyers said Wednesday that the Parole Board's decision would delay McGehee's execution. A spokesman for Hutchinson said the governor's office interprets the law to mean that the public comment period starts only if the governor signals his intention to grant clemency.

The law, Arkansas Code Annotated 16-93-204, was also the partial subject in a lawsuit heard in federal court Wednesday. Lawyers for McGehee and five other condemned inmates argued that the state is skirting the rules to meet the rapid pace of the executions.

The statute states:

"(e) At least thirty (30) days before submitting to the Governor a recommendation that an application for pardon, commutation of sentence, or remission of fine or forfeiture be granted, the board shall:

(1) Issue a public notice of its intention to make such a recommendation; and

(2) Send notice of its intention to the circuit judge who presided over the applicant's trial, the prosecuting attorney, and the county sheriff of the county in which the applicant was convicted and, if applicable, to the victim or the victim's next of kin if the victim or the victim's next of kin registered for notification with the prosecuting attorney under §16-21-106(c)."

Because Hutchinson's order scheduling the executions was handed down 48 days before the executions were scheduled to begin, the Parole Board established an expedited clemency process that included limiting presentation times from two hours to one hour, holding back-to-back hearings and cutting short the amount of time the governor will have to consider the requests.

In the federal court lawsuit, attorneys for the six inmates argued that the Parole Board arbitrarily bent the rules to set up the quicker clemency process. In the case of the executive clemency statute, lawyers said the state broke the law.

The inmates want an injunction to temporarily halt the executions and restart the clemency process on the normal time frame. Doing so would block the executions indefinitely, state attorneys argue, because Arkansas' supply of the sleep-inducing drug used to start executions expires at the end of this month, and it will be difficult for prison officials to find a replacement.

Deputy Solicitor General Nicholas Bronni said the inmates "are guilty beyond any scintilla or fraction of a doubt," and that the 30-day comment period does not apply to most of them because the board voted against their clemency requests.

In McGehee's case, or for any of the inmates where he may have doubts, Bronni said the governor still has the option to stay the execution date.

U.S. District Judge D. Price Marshall Jr. said he would take the night to deliberate the case and issue his ruling this morning.

The board's decision was released as McGehee's attorney, John Williams, sat in on the federal court proceedings. He said he was pleased with the decision, which he hoped to discuss with his client during hours when McGehee is able to use a prison phone today.

Last week, dressed in a white jumpsuit, the 40-year-old McGehee told the board that he regretted his role in the slaying.

Prosecutors never contended that McGehee's hands strangled Melbourne, rather that McGehee, then 20, directed two others to kill the teen after torturing him in alleged retaliation for Melbourne telling police about petty crimes he had been involved in with McGehee and his friends.

Two accomplices, Christopher Epps and Ben McFarland, were sentenced to life in prison. In his clemency application, McGehee's attorneys argued that he received a disproportionately tough sentence for his involvement in the slaying.

"I wish I could make my involvement up to [Melbourne's family], but I can't," McGehee told the board.

John Melbourne Sr. placed a photograph of his son on the stand as he spoke against McGehee's clemency application last week. Growing tearful, he told the board that although McGehee had expressed regrets to the clemency board, McGehee had never apologized directly to him.

A Section on 04/06/2017