Trial by Fire - Did Texas execute an innocent man?

The fire moved quickly through the house, a one-story wood-frame structure in a working-class neighborhood of Corsicana, in northeast Texas. Flames spread along the walls, bursting through doorways, blistering paint and tiles and furniture. Smoke pressed against the ceiling, then banked downward, seeping into each room and through crevices in the windows, staining the morning sky.
Buffie Barbee, who was eleven years old and lived two houses down, was playing in her back yard when she smelled the smoke. She ran inside and told her mother, Diane, and they hurried up the street; that’s when they saw the smoldering house and Cameron Todd Willingham standing on the front porch, wearing only a pair of jeans, his chest blackened with soot, his hair and eyelids singed. He was screaming, “My babies are burning up!” His children—Karmon and Kameron, who were one-year-old twin girls, and two-year-old Amber—were trapped inside.
Willingham told the Barbees to call the Fire Department, and while Dia…

Virginia executes Ricky Gray

Ricky Gray
Ricky Gray
Ricky Javon Gray, 39, was sentenced to death for the 2006 murders of Harvey sisters Ruby, 4, and Stella, 9. Gray also killed the girls' parents and another Richmond family.

Ricky Javon Gray was executed by injection Wednesday night for the slaying of 2 young Richmond sisters on New Year's Day 2006.

Gray, 39, was pronounced dead at 9:42 p.m. at the Greensville Correctional Center. Asked if he had any final words, Gray said, "Nope," according to a prison spokeswoman.

It appeared to take an inordinately long time - more than a half-hour - to place the IV lines and do other procedures behind a curtain that blocks the view of witnesses.

At the conclusion of the execution, a physician came out from behind the curtain and listened to Gray's chest for a heartbeat.

Gray was sentenced to die for the Jan. 1, 2006, slayings of Ruby Harvey, 4, and Stella Harvey, 9. He and accomplice Ray Dandridge, 39, also killed their parents, Bryan Harvey, 49, and Kathryn Harvey, 39, in their Woodland Heights home.

A few days later, Gray and Dandridge killed Ashley Baskerville, 21; Baskerville's mother, Mary Tucker, 47; and stepfather, Percyell Tucker, 55, in their South Richmond home. Dandridge, Gray's nephew, was sentenced to life for those killings.

The Harveys were tied up, their throats cut and beaten with a hammer. Their house was set on fire by the killers when they fled and the victims were initially discovered by firefighters. Ultimately, Gray was sentenced to death, leading to years of appeals.

The Virginia Department of Corrections said that victim family members were expected to witness the execution. The state does not reveal the victim witnesses who view the proceedings through one-way glass in a separate room from other witnesses.

On Tuesday, Gov. Terry McAuliffe turned down a clemency request to commute Gray's death sentence to life without possibility of parole. Later on Tuesday, Gray's lawyers asked the U.S. Supreme Court for an emergency stay, which the justices denied on Wednesday evening.

Outside Greensville Correctional Center on Wednesday evening, a half-dozen members of Virginians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty gathered with about 20 of Gray's family members to hold a vigil as the man was executed.

One women held a sign that said "Thou shall not kill." Several in the group said they object to the death penalty for religious and other reasons. They said there is no doubt that Gray killed the Harveys and Tucker-Baskerville families, but that no one else should die.

Also outside the prison was Chuck Troutman, of Staunton, who held a sign in support of the Harvey family.

Earlier in the day, as the clock ticked down for Gray, Richmond Commonwealth's Attorney Michael N. Herring said, "I definitely think the city is going to be better off when we close the chapter on Ricky Gray."

"I think we will remember the Harveys and the Tucker/Baskervilles well - and it will be nice when Ricky Gray's name and memory are distant," Herring said.

He recalled the Sunday the Harveys were murdered. He had just been elected to office but had not yet taken the oath. "I was at the scene before I was sworn in," said Herring, who officially took office the next day.

"When I heard the news, I remember being in disbelief that we had a crime that involved 4 fatalities. That was just hard to come to terms with," said Herring. He and the 2 deputies who would prosecute Gray and Dandridge, Learned Barry and the late Matthew Geary, went to the Harveys' house.

Herring said, "That 1st week we really were struggling to come up with leads. It's one thing to have to reconcile the gravity of what's happened with the inability to identify the perpetrator."

"So we immediately went from the scope of what had (happened) to the fear that we had potential mass murderers roaming the city. And it turned out that that's what we had because they ended up killing the Tucker-Baskervilles. We became just totally preoccupied with trying to develop viable leads," said Herring.

The Harveys were murdered on Jan. 1 and the Tucker/Baskerville slayings were discovered on Jan. 6. Acting on a tip, police arrested Gray and Dandridge in Philadelphia on Jan. 7. Gray soon confessed. He also admitted he had murdered his wife, Treva Gray, in Pennsylvania in November 2005.

Herring did not attend the execution but Barry planned to be there to represent the office.

Gray's clemency petition to McAuliffe cited his physical and sexual abuse suffered as a child that led to his addiction to PCP, a drug his lawyers said he was high on while committing the murders.

The late court challenge stemmed from Virginia's 3-drug execution procedure. The 1st drug is intended to render the inmate unconscious, the 2nd to cause paralysis, and the 3rd stops the heart.

For Gray's execution the state planned to use midazolam and potassium chloride made by a licensed compounding pharmacy in Virginia as the 1st and 3rd drugs. The compounded chemicals are tested monthly to verify identity and potency, said state officials.

The chemicals are injected into 1 of 2 intravenous lines - the 2nd line is a backup - with a saline flush following the injection of each chemical. 2 minutes after the 1st saline flush, the inmate is pinched or otherwise tested to make sure he or she is unconscious.

Among other things, critics contend that if the 1st drug fails to render the inmates unconscious, they could be awake but paralyzed by the 2nd drug and unable to signal they are suffering pain.

Compounded midazolam has never been used in an execution before, complained Gray's lawyers.

Their bid for a stay of execution was rejected by a federal judge and a federal appeals court last week. On Wednesday evening the U.S. Supreme Court denied Gray's request for a stay without giving explanation.

Virginia's Catholic Bishops Francis X. DiLorenzo, of Richmond, and Michael F. Burbidge, of Arlington, released a statement Wednesday opposing the death penalty.

They said in part, "Knowing that the state can protect itself in ways other than through the death penalty, we have repeatedly asked that the practice be abandoned. Our broken world cries out for justice, not the additional violence or vengeance the death penalty will exact.

Gray becomes the 1st condemned inmate to be put to death this year in Virginia, and the 112th execution in Virginia since the U.S. Supreme Court allowed executions to resume in 1976. The toll ties Oklahoma's 112 executions for the 2nd most nationally. Texas leads the country with 539.

Gray becomes the 2nd condemned inmate to be put to death this year in the USA and the 1444th overall since the nation resumed executions on January 17, 1977.

Sources: Richmond Times-Dispatch, Rick Halperin, January 18, 2017

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