Triple Execution of 1997
The first two inmates to be executed, Paul Ruiz and Earl Van Denton, were convicted of murders perpetrated during a post-escape crime spree. Ruiz and Van Denton escaped together from an Oklahoma prison on June 23, 1977. Van Denton was serving a life sentence for murder, while Ruiz was serving life for armed robbery. The pair moved across Oklahoma and into Arkansas, committing a number of crimes. On June 29, near the town of Magazine (Logan County), the men kidnapped town marshal Marvin Ritchie and handcuffed him in the back seat of his patrol car. Driving the patrol car, the two stopped a truck driven by two U.S. Army Corps of Engineers rangers.
Kidnapping the rangers, Opal James and David Small, the men handcuffed Ritchie and Small together, placed them in the truck of the patrol car, and shot them. Small survived, while Ritchie died. James was taken by the two to serve as a guide. He was later shot, and his body was found on July 1 near Oden (Montgomery County).
Ruiz and Van Denton are also believed to have killed Gerald Leon Tiffee and James in Oklahoma, and Alton Wilson, Ray Jones Sr., and Jimmy Cockrell in Louisiana. On July 8, Ruiz and Van Denton were captured in Portland, Oregon.
After weeks of legal maneuvering, the two men were extradited to Arkansas, tried in Booneville (Logan County) on capital murder charges, and convicted on April 27, 1978. The jury deliberated for forty minutes before returning the verdict and deliberated for another hour before recommending the death penalty. The convictions for both men were overturned by the Arkansas Supreme Court, and they were retried in 1983 in Morrilton (Conway County) after pretrial publicity in Logan County was deemed to be prejudicial to their case. The men again were convicted and sentenced to death, but the death sentences were overturned by the Eighth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in 1987, and that phase of the trial was held again. Once again, both men were sentenced to death. An appeal filed in 1989 to the Eighth Circuit was denied, followed by a final appeal that was denied on January 3, 1997.
The other convicted murderer executed that night was Kirt Wainwright. On July 29, 1988, Wainwright and two other men robbed the Best Stop convenience store in Prescott (Nevada County), killing clerk Barbara Smith during the robbery. The previous day, a similar robbery at a convenience store in Hope (Hempstead County) led to the death of clerk Karen Ross. While driving away from the murder scene in Prescott, the three men were stopped by a local police officer. A search of the car found a money bag with the logo of the Best Stop with a loaded revolver with one spent shell. Additional evidence showed that Wainwright and another man in the car did not have gunpowder residue on their hands, while third man, Dennis Leeper, did have residue. All three were arrested and charged with capital murder.
The trials were severed, and Wainwright was tried first. He was convicted of capital murder in 1989 and received the death penalty. The driver of the car was acquitted, and Leeper pled guilty to aggravated robbery and received a seventeen-year sentence.
Governor Mike Huckabee set the execution date of January 8, 1997, for Wainwright, Ruiz, and Van Denton. It was an icy night, and a vigil was held outside of the governor’s mansion in Little Rock (Pulaski County). Victims and the relatives of victims were not allowed to witness the execution, but several were present at the prison.
Scheduling the executions for the same day was justified as a means of saving money due to required overtime of prison officials; it also was said to relieve the workers at the prison the mental strain of preparing for three separate dates. At the time of the execution, Van Denton and Ruiz were the longest-serving inmates on Arkansas’s death row, arriving after their initial convictions in 1978.
Van Denton, who did not deliver a final statement, was executed and declared dead at 7:09 p.m. Ruiz, who also did not deliver a final statement, followed and was declared dead at 8:00 p.m. The execution of Wainwright was scheduled for 9:00 p.m. After he was strapped to the gurney, word came of a possible stay due to the fact that the governor knew one of the victims. The U.S. Supreme Court allowed the execution to proceed. At 9:35 p.m., Wainwright gave his final statement, including a poem that he wrote. He was pronounced dead at 9:50.
For additional information:
“An Evening of Death: 3 Murderers Are Executed.” New York Times, January 10, 1997, p. A1.
“Kirt Wainwright Dies for the 1988 Murder of Clerk.” Nevada County Picayune, January 15, 1997, p. 1.
“Murders Still Fresh, Four Decades Later.” Booneville Democrat, July 3, 2017, p. 1.
“Petition Denied from Death Row in 1988 Murder.” Nevada County Picayune, April 17, 1996, p. 1.
Henderson State University
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