While Arkansas officials grapple with the methods of execution in Arkansas, 37 convicted killers languish on “Death Row” in the Varner Supermax Unit at the state Department of Correction prison near Grady, 28 miles south of Pine Bluff.
It’s no country club, of course, but it is a life of sorts that seems to be the preferred alternative to the death sentences hanging over these 37 prisoners, all male. Most of them continue to fight to stay alive, and so far they are succeeding, thanks largely to the help of people opposed to capital punishment.
Earlier this year a legislative committee held hearings on the state’s system of carrying out executions after a succession of legal challenges left the latest method in doubt. Earlier, Attorney General Dustin McDaniel, whose office represents the state in capital punishment cases, expressed doubt that the system can be fixed and called for an open discussion on whether to abolish the death penalty.
The state has not carried out a death sentence since Eric Randall Nance was administered a lethal dose of sodium pentathol on Nov. 28, 2005. He had been convicted of murdering an 18-year-old Malvern cheerleader, Julie Heath, in October 1993. Press reports afterward said Nance had found her standing beside her broken-down car alongside U.S. 270 between Malvern and Hot Springs. She was raped and her throat cut with a box cutter.
If we’re going to have a discussion about whether to continue the death penalty, we should start by looking at the 37 men that Arkansas juries have decided are deserving of that fate.
You can find a current list on the Arkansas Department of Correction Web site (http://adc.arkansas.gov). From that list you can find more information about each. Of the 37, 15 are white and 22 are black.
The oldest is Steven Wertz, 63, a former law enforcement officer convicted in 2007 of murdering a couple in their Ash Flat (Sharp County) home, apparently as part of a long-running domestic dispute. An accomplice pleaded guilty to lesser charges in return for his testimony and spent less than a year in prison before gaining parole.
The youngest is Gregory Decay, 28, a Hurricane Katrina refugee convicted in 2008 of murdering a young couple in their Fayetteville home, allegedly over a drug dispute. His case has been sent back to Washington County Circuit Court for additional findings of fact. An accomplice pleaded guilty and is serving 50 years in prison.
Roger Lewis Coulter, 53, has been on Death Row the longest, having been sentenced in October 1989 by an Ashley County jury of murdering and raping a 5-year-old girl. He was living with the victim’s mother at the time and hid the child’s body in a wooded area nearby.
The newest Death Row resident is Jerry D. Lard, 39, sentenced to death in July 2012 in Greene County on a change of venue. He had been charged with the murder of Trumann police officer Jonathan Schmidt during a traffic stop in April 2011.
The list of crimes for which these 37 men have been convicted is much too long to detail in this column, but let’s look at some of the most horrendous.
• Jack Harold Jones Jr., now 49, in 1995 raped and strangled to death a Bald Knob bookkeeper, Mary Phillips, and beat her 11-year-old daughter so severely that police first thought she was dead, too.
• Kenneth Williams, 33, was convicted in 1999 of murdering a Lincoln County farmer, Cecil Boren, 57, after escaping from the Cummins Unit prison. He had been serving life in prison for the murder of Dominique Hurd, 19, a University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff cheerleader.
• Marcell W. Williams, 43, was convicted in the 1994 rape and murder of Stacy Errickson, 22, after kidnapping her from a Jacksonville convenience store, where the mother of two had stopped to get gas on her way to work.
• Bruce Earl Ward, 56, in 1989 attempted to rape and then strangled an 18-year-old Little Rock convenience store clerk, Rebecca Lynn Doss. He was arrested at the scene by a police officer who happened to drive by. Ward had previously been convicted of voluntary manslaughter for the 1977 strangulation of a woman in Pennsylvania.
• Alvin Bernal Jackson, 43, already serving time for the 1990 murder of Charles Colclasure and attempted killing of two other people, got the death penalty after stabbing prison guard Scott Grimes to death with a homemade knife in 1995.
• Stacey Eugene Johnson, 43, in 1993 stripped, beat, strangled and slit the throat of Carol Jean Health, 26, at her De Queen apartment while her 6-year-old daughter and 2-year-old son hid in a closet. The 6-year-old helped identify her mother’s killer.
• Justin C. Anderson, 32, murdered 87-year-old Clara Creech while she was gardening in her yard at Lewisville, then burglarized her home. A week earlier he robbed and shot a man.
• Kenneth Isom, 46, in 2001 broke into the trailer home of an elderly Drew County man, robbing and killing him, then raped and attempted to murder his 72-year-old caregiver, leaving her for dead. Fortunately, she survived and identified him.
Which of these do you want to put into our parole system?
Roy Ockert is editor emeritus of The Jonesboro Sun. He may be reached by e-mail at royosuddenlink.net.