John Edward Swindler (Trial and Execution of)

John Edward Swindler was a habitual and violent criminal who was executed on June 18, 1990, for the 1976 murder of on-duty Fort Smith (Sebastian County) patrolman Randy Basnett. He was the first Arkansas death row inmate executed following reinstatement of the death penalty in 1977 (the last execution before Swindler had been in 1964). Unique circumstances caused him to be the last Arkansas inmate to be executed in the electric chair.

Having served in multiple penal institutions since the age of fifteen, Swindler was released from the United States Prison at Leavenworth, Kansas, on September 17, 1976. He returned to his home state of South Carolina, where a former cellmate provided him a gun. He began a crime spree that included abductions; an attempted abduction; the shooting and killing of three people; the tying up of an elderly couple whom he robbed of guns, ammunition, and a vehicle; and a service station robbery that left the attendant paralyzed after being shot.

Aggrieved about perceived mistreatment at Leavenworth, Swindler planned to return to Kansas, kill as many citizens as he could, and then shoot as many police officers as possible. Unable to read road signs, Swindler was lost much of the time and had to ask for directions often. On September 24, 1976, he took a wrong exit that brought him to Fort Smith.

Stopping at the Road Runner convenience store and service station on Kelley Highway, just off Interstate 540, Swindler entered the store where Patrolman Basnett was visiting with the owner. Basnett recognized the stolen vehicle and Swindler from a national bulletin issued by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) earlier that day. Exiting the store after receiving directions to Kansas, Swindler inspected the car’s engine while Basnett proceeded to his patrol car, radioed for backup, and pulled his car behind the stolen vehicle. Swindler shut the hood and got into the car. A witness confirmed that Basnett approached the car and spoke with Swindler. From the seated position in the car, Swindler suddenly brought up a pistol and fired it, striking Basnett twice.

Although mortally wounded, Basnett was able to fire his gun at the vehicle, resulting in superficial wounds for Swindler. Swindler fled east in the vehicle on Kelley Highway. Arkansas State Police from the Troop Headquarters just across Kelley Highway followed Swindler and were backed up by responding Fort Smith officers. They found the car abandoned in a wooded area near the Arkansas River, and as police moved in, Swindler surrendered. Basnett was pronounced dead on arrival at Sparks Memorial Medical Center.

Swindler was treated for his wounds and placed in the Sebastian County jail. A public defender was appointed, and a plea of not guilty was entered. Swindler was held without bond. The public defender requested, and was granted, a thirty-day psychiatric evaluation of Swindler at the Arkansas State Hospital in Little Rock (Pulaski County). The evaluation results declared him free of psychosis, and he was returned to the Sebastian County jail.

Following a two-day hearing, the circuit judge denied Swindler’s request for a change of venue. Dissatisfied with his attorneys, Swindler asked the circuit court and later the federal district court to appoint new counsel. The requests were denied, and the case proceeded to trial in February 1977. Swindler argued that he had acted in self-defense, saying that he had “heard a gun cock real close” and was hit twice by bullets and that he returned fire before he realized the individual was a police officer. Swindler also claimed that he “was pretty well high on vodka when it happened.” The Sebastian County jury found him guilty of capital felony murder after deliberating for forty-five minutes, sentencing him to death in the electric chair.

Swindler appealed, and the Arkansas Supreme Court, in 1978, reversed and remanded the case, holding that change of venue was necessary in such a case and that three of the jurors should have been disqualified due to pre-trial publicity.

An October 1978 re-trial in Waldron (Scott County) produced an identical jury verdict of guilty and penalty of death. On appeal a second time, the Arkansas Supreme Court, in 1979, upheld the verdict and sentence. A 1981 appeal arguing inadequacy of legal counsel was rejected by the Arkansas Supreme Court. The U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear the appeal.

Swindler began the first of two habeas corpus appeals in August 1988. His attorneys argued that mental health and other mitigating factors should have been considered at trial. His arguments were rejected by U.S. District Judge Henry Woods. The Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld his decision, and the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear the case. With appeals exhausted, the stay of execution was lifted, and Governor Bill Clinton signed the proclamation for Swindler’s execution to take place on June 18, 1990.

Swindler had developed some friendships with anti–death penalty activists and clergy, three of whom spoke on his behalf before the parole board in a late bid for executive clemency, asking that his sentence be changed to life without parole. Speaking against clemency were the family of Basnett, a former guard at the prison, and a prosecutor. The board voted 5–0 to recommend denial of clemency. Governor Clinton followed that recommendation.

In a second habeas corpus appeal in June 1990, Swindler argued erroneous jury selection and instructions, petitioning for a stay of execution. The federal district court denied the stay, as did the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals.

As the appeal moved to the U.S. Supreme Court, preparations for execution proceeded. Swindler had been sentenced to die in the electric chair. In 1983, however, Arkansas changed the method of execution from electric chair to lethal injection. Given the choice, Swindler declined to choose. Absent a choice, authorities upheld the original sentence of electrocution.

In the early morning hours of June 15, 1990, Swindler was moved from death row at the Varner Unit to a small cell near the death chamber at Cummins Unit. There, he was allowed to direct the final disposition of his items, give instructions for the final disposition of his remains, and choose a last meal.

The next day, the U.S. Supreme Court, with Justices William J. Brennen and Thurgood Marshall dissenting, denied the request for a stay of execution. Swindler’s attorneys acknowledged that there was no basis for further appeal.

On the day of the execution, June 18, 1990, visitors were limited to Swindler’s religious advisor and his attorney. Swindler was led to the death chamber and to Arkansas’s second electric chair. The large oak chair was built in 1976 and replaced the one built in 1913 that had been used through 1964. Swindler would be the first and, absent change in law, last inmate to be executed in the new chair.

At 9:02 p.m. Swindler became the first person to be executed in Arkansas in twenty-six years. He was pronounced dead by the Lincoln County Coroner a few minutes later.

For additional information:
Parker, Max, and Joe Stumpe. “Swindler Dies in Electric Chair.” Arkansas Democrat, June 19, 1990, p. 1A.

“Officer Killed at Fort Smith.” Arkansas Gazette, September 25, 1976, p. 1A.

Rafinski, Karen. “Swindler Is Executed; Victim’s Family Elated.” Arkansas Gazette, June 19, 1990, p. 1A.

Swindler v. State, 569 S.W. 2d 120 (1978).

Swindler v. State, 592 S.W. 2d 91 (1979).

Swindler v. Lockhart, 495 U.S. 911 (1990).

Wes Goodner
Little Rock, Arkansas

Last Updated: 08/27/2020

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