Triple Execution of 1994

On the night of August 3, 1994, three inmates of the Arkansas Department of Correction were put to death at the Cummins Unit for their participation in the same crime. Convicted of a murder and robbery committed in Rogers (Benton County) on January 8, 1981, the three men were executed at one-hour intervals.

On the night of January 8, 1981, the home of Donald Lehman and his family was the scene of a home invasion. Four masked men rang the doorbell and burst into the home. At least two were armed with handguns, and a third carried a chain. Lehman was thrown into his bedroom and repeatedly shot and struck with the chain, killing him. Lehman’s wife and daughter were present in the house during the incident. After an undetermined time in the home, the four robbers fled with more than $1,200 in cash and a gun collection.

The first suspect, Darryl Richley, was arrested on January 9 in Fayetteville (Washington County) on a charge of criminal impersonation. A search of Richley’s car led to the discovery of several firearms believed to have been stolen from the Lehman home. This initial arrest led to the capture of James William Holmes, Hoyt Clines, and Michael Orndorff on charges related to the robbery and murder. Charged with capital murder and two counts of armed robbery, the four defendants were put on trial in September 1981 in Benton County. The four men were convicted of all charges on October 30 and sentenced to death.

Several execution dates were set over the next decade, but appeals prevented the state from moving forward. The convictions were affirmed by the Arkansas Supreme Court in July 1983, with a 5–2 decision. The two dissenting justices argued that Orndorff deserved a lesser sentence than the other three defendants. Additional appeals continued in both state and federal court. Orndorff saw some success in 1994 when the state was ordered to either resentence him to life without parole or hold a new penalty phase. This development arose after appellate attorneys discovered that Lehman’s daughter changed her initial statement after being hypnotized. During the original trial, Orndorff was found to have a mitigating circumstance during the penalty phase but received the death penalty anyway. The state decided against holding a resentencing hearing, and he received a sentence of life without parole.

The state set an execution date of August 3, 1994. The executions took place over a three-hour period. Each of the three convicts was allowed to choose between the electric chair and lethal injection. All three chose lethal injection. The original order of the executions was based on the inmate number of the trio, which was also alphabetical by last name. Clines entered the execution chamber at 7:00 p.m. He was pronounced dead at 7:11. The execution of Holmes was postponed as a last-minute appeal was launched. In response to this late-breaking development, the execution of Richley was moved up to 8:00. He was pronounced dead at 8:07. Holmes was pronounced dead at 9:24. All three declined to make final statements.

The Arkansas Department of Correction defended the decision to hold all three of the executions on the same night as a way to be efficient. Opponents of the death penalty decried the multiple executions as a slaughter.

For additional information:
“Arkansas Carries Out Nation’s First Triple Execution in 32 Years.” New York Times, August 5, 1994.

George, Emmett. “State Executes Three Killers in One Night.” Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, August 4, 1994, p. 3B.

“Holmes Denies Involvement in Killing.” Northwest Arkansas Times, October 21, 1981.

“Lehman Murder Convictions Affirmed.” Northwest Arkansas Times, July 5, 1983.

“Murder Trial Recessed at Bentonville.” Northwest Arkansas Times, October 22, 1981.

David Sesser
Henderson State University

Last Updated: 10/19/2019

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