Executions of April 2017

The State of Arkansas announced plans to carry out a total of eight executions over a eleven-day period in April 2017. Originally planned as four double executions scheduled for April 17, 20, 24, and 27, ultimately only four executions were carried out, including a double execution.

On February 27, 2017, Governor Asa Hutchinson announced that eight men would be executed in April. The men scheduled to die were Don Davis and Bruce Earl Ward, scheduled to be executed on April 17; Ledell Lee and Stacey Johnson on April 20; Marcell Williams and Jack Jones Jr. on April 24; and Jason McGehee and Kenneth Williams on April 27.

The execution protocol for the state utilized a three-drug cocktail consisting of Midazolam, a sedative; vecuronium bromide, a paralytic; and potassium chloride, which stops cardiac function. By the time the execution dates were scheduled, the state’s supply of potassium chloride had expired the previous month, and the supply of Midazolam was scheduled to expire at the end of April. On March 13, the state acquired additional potassium chloride.

The state acquired additional doses of vecuronium bromide in the summer of 2016. Upon learning that the drugs were purchased to be used in executions and not for medical purposes, Hospira, a subsidiary of Pfizer, made efforts to ensure the drug was not used. Both companies called on the state to return the drug and issued a refund to the Arkansas Department of Corrections. The state ultimately did not return the drugs, and the Arkansas Supreme Court allowed the Department of Corrections to move forward with the executions using the drugs.

Outcries against the scheduled executions came from around the world. Multiple efforts were launched to stay the execution orders, with some proving to be successful.

The first execution date passed with both men scheduled to die receiving stays. Convicted of the August 11, 1989, murder of convenience store clerk Rebecca Doss in Little Rock (Pulaski County), Bruce Ward was previously convicted of voluntary manslaughter in the death of Janet Needham in Erie, Pennsylvania. The Arkansas Supreme Court issued a stay of execution for Ward on April 14. In 2022, Ward remained on death row and had been diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia.

Don Davis, convicted of murdering Jane Daniels of Rogers (Benton County) during a burglary of her home on October 12, 1990, received an execution date with Ward, April 17. Davis also received a stay of execution from the Arkansas Supreme Court. He attempted to commit suicide in July 2018 and remained on death row in 2022.

The second execution date saw the sentence for one of the two men carried out. Debra Reese was murdered in her Jacksonville (Pulaski County) home on February 9, 1993. Convicted of the crime, Ledell Lee was also convicted of two rapes committed in 1990 and 1991. Another capital murder charge was dropped after the Arkansas Supreme Court affirmed his conviction and sentence in Reese’s murder. Numerous efforts to implement a stay for Lee were launched, but none proved to be successful for more than a few hours. Eventually, the U.S. Supreme Court lifted a temporary stay by a vote of five to four to allow the execution to proceed. After receiving communion as his final meal, Lee received his injection at 11:45 p.m. and was pronounced dead at 11:56. After his execution, additional DNA tests were conducted on evidence from the crime scene where Reese was murdered, with some reports suggesting that the tests supported the theory of another suspect in the crime.

Stacey Johnson was convicted of the April 2, 1993, murder of Carol Heath in her De Queen (Sevier County) home while her two children were in the house. Johnson received a stay of execution from the Arkansas Supreme Court and was not executed. In 2022, Johnson remained on death row.

The only date during this period on which two executions took place was April 24 when Marcell Williams and Jack Jones Jr. were both put to death. Jones had been convicted of the rape and murder Mary Phillips at her office in Bald Knob (White County), where he also beat and left for dead her eleven-year-old daughter. While on death row in Arkansas, Jones’s DNA matched evidence in the Florida murder of Lorraine Barrett, a tourist from Pennsylvania. Jones was tried and convicted in her rape and murder, receiving a life sentence before being returned to Arkansas to await his execution.

Jones was pronounced dead at 7:20 p.m. Before his execution, Jones had given his sister a letter with instructions to open it one year after his death. In the letter, Jones admitted to the rape and murder of Regina Harrison in Hollywood, Florida, on May 2, 1983. (Another man, Ronald Henry Stewart, was charged with the crime. Convicted of multiple sexual assaults, Stewart pleaded guilty to avoid the death penalty in the case; he died from cancer in prison in 2008.) The murders that Jones committed categorized him as a serial killer.

Williams abducted, raped, and murdered Stacy Errickson on November 20, 1994, in Jacksonville. Before killing her, he had forced Errickson to withdraw funds from multiple automated teller machines (ATMs). He buried his victim west of downtown North Little Rock (Pulaski County). Williams was also convicted of multiple other attacks and received a total of three life sentences plus seventy years for these crimes, in addition to his death sentence. Williams was pronounced dead at 10:33 p.m.

The last date for executions in the series, April 27, 2017, saw only one carried out. Convicted of murdering fifteen-year-old John Melbourne near Omaha (Boone County), Jason McGehee was twenty years old at the time of the August 19, 1996, crime. Two others took part in the actual murder, and two additional individuals also participated in the beating that proceeded the murder. McGehee was sentenced to death, while the other two participants in the murder received life without parole sentences, and the two individuals who beat the victim received life with parole sentences. The Arkansas Parole Board heard McGehee’s bid for clemency and, on April 5, 2017, recommended his sentence be commuted to life in prison without parole. The Federal District Court placed a stay on his execution to allow a thirty-day window for public comment. The state did not challenge this ruling, and Hutchinson agreed with the recommendation from the parole board, commuting McGehee’s sentence to life in prison without parole on August 25, 2017.

Kenneth Williams received a life sentence for the murder of Dominique Hurd and the attempted murder of her boyfriend in Pine Bluff (Jefferson County) on December 13, 1998. Transferred to Cummins Prison, he escaped less than a month after arriving. Hiding in a barrel of pork scraps from the kitchen, Williams was transported out of the prison. Breaking into the home of retired deputy warden Cecil Boren, Williams killed him and stole his truck. Driving to Missouri, Williams fled from police during a traffic stop. During his flight, he struck the vehicle of Michael Greenwood, killing him in the accident.

Convicted of Boren’s death, Williams was sentenced to death. Williams was pronounced dead at 11:05 p.m. Witness reports of Williams’s death included information that he convulsed, coughed, and jerked during the execution. Reports from the Department of Corrections and the governor’s office contradicted the multiple eyewitness accounts, claiming the execution was successful and without problems.

For additional information:
“Background on Arkansas April 2017 Executions.” Death Penalty Information Center, December 8, 2017. https://deathpenaltyinfo.org/facts-and-research/dpic-reports/dpic-special-reports/background-on-arkansas-april-2017-executions (accessed November 15, 2022).

“Gov. Hutchinson Announces Intent to Grant Clemency to Jason McGehee.” Governor of Arkansas, August 25, 2017. https://governor.arkansas.gov/news-media/press-releases/gov-hutchinson-announces-intent-to-grant-clemency-to-jason-mcgehee (accessed November 15, 2022).

Hammersly, Lisa. “Jack Jones Ready for His Execution; Now He Pays, Says Daughter of Victim, Survivor of Attack.” Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, April 25, 2017. https://www.arkansasonline.com/news/2017/apr/25/jack-jones-ready-for-his-execution-2017/ (accessed November 15, 2022).

Olmeda, Rafael. “A Serial Rapist Took the Blame for South Florida Woman’s Murder. A Serial Killer was Really the Culprit.” South Florida Sun Sentinel, March 21, 2019. https://archive.ph/DBuK2#selection-1331.0-1331.104 (accessed November 15, 2022).

Riddle, Brandon, Rebecca Pettit, and Maggie McNeary. “Arkansas Executions.” Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, April 11, 2017. https://www.arkansasonline.com/arkansasexecutions/ (accessed November 15, 2022).

David Sesser
Southeastern Louisiana University


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