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Arkansas Parole Board Recommends Clemency for Death-Row Inmate

Jason McGehee
Jason McGehee
The Arkansas Parole Board has recommended that one of the eight men set to be executed during a 10-day span this month receive clemency and be spared capital punishment.

The board’s nonbinding recommendation, approved by a vote of 6 to 1, is the latest twist in Arkansas’s effort to restart its capital punishment program, which has been suspended since 2005 because of legal and logistical challenges. While four other inmates on death row have been denied clemency in recent weeks, the parole board showed mercy for Jason McGehee, who killed a teenager in the Ozarks in 1996.

The recommendation is now in the hands of Gov. Asa Hutchinson, a Republican who scheduled the stacked executions because a lethal-injection drug used by the state is about to expire. A spokesman for the governor said he was reviewing it.

If Mr. Hutchinson denies the recommendation and all eight inmates are put to death, Arkansas will be the first state to conduct that many executions in a month since capital punishment resumed in the United States in 1977, according to the Death Penalty Information Center, a Washington-based group that studies capital punishment. Six of the eight inmates applied for clemency after Mr. Hutchinson announced the executions in February. The final parole board hearing is on Friday.

Typically, if a death sentence is commuted, it is replaced with a sentence of life without parole.

The board did not explain its decision in Mr. McGehee’s case. But during the clemency hearing on Friday, the chairman, John Felts, said he did not believe that Mr. McGehee’s sentence was excessive, given that the murder victim was tortured before his death, according to The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. Mr. Felts was the lone member to vote against clemency.

Mr. McGehee’s clemency bid had the support of two high-profile officials: the judge who presided over his case and a former director of the Arkansas Department of Correction. The judge, Robert McCorkindale, wrote in a letter to the parole board that Mr. McGehee did not deserve the death penalty.

“I tried a lot of capital murder cases in my years, and I saw people that I thought were much worse individuals get life without parole as opposed to the death penalty,” Mr. McCorkindale, who oversaw the 14th Judicial Circuit in Arkansas from 1979 to 2002, said in an interview on Wednesday.

“I didn’t see him as the worst of the worst,” Mr. McCorkindale added. “As a matter of fact, he was a very young man.”

Mr. McGehee, who was 20 at the time, and two friends kidnapped John Thomas Melbourne Jr. in August 1996, after they heard that he had told the authorities about their theft ring. They took Mr. Melbourne to an abandoned farm, tied him up with an electrical cord, and took turns beating and choking him until he died.

The capital murder trials started in 1998, and the two other men were tried first. One received life in prison without parole, and the other, who was a juvenile, had his sentence adjusted in January to 40 years in prison. In the last trial, prosecutors described Mr. McGehee as the ringleader of the kidnapping and murder.

Mr. McCorkindale said he believed that the three men did not kidnap Mr. Melbourne with the intention of killing him, but that the situation got out of hand. He said Mr. McGehee had been sentenced to death even though he did not deliver the fatal blow.

“I just felt that these were all young people involved in this case, and there was a shared responsibility,” he said.

At the hearing on Friday, the victim’s father, John Melbourne, said his son had also pleaded for mercy before he died. “John didn’t have this,” Mr. Melbourne told the parole board members, according to news reports. “He begged for his life, too. He didn’t have y’all.”

Source: The New York Times, Matthew Haag, April 5, 2017

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