The conflict in Arkansas is the latest to politicize the death penalty — but for families of the victims and the prisoners, it also resurfaces the complicated issues of closure and the long-reaching effect of these executions on their communities.
Arkansas justified its unusually swift schedule by saying the state’s supply of lethal injection drugs were about to expire, and pharmaceutical companies have refused to replenish stocks. A series of judicial rulings blocked the scheduled executions of the first four men: Jason McGehee, Bruce Ward, Don Davis and Stacey Johnson. The three men who remain are, at the moment, still scheduled to die before the month is out.
The idea of closure is powerful. It’s something Arkansas invoked in an April 15 motion that tried to fight a temporary restraining order that McKesson Medical Surgical, Inc., has used to block the use of its drug vecuronium bromide in state executions. (The drug is typically used as general anesthesia to relax muscles before surgery).
“The friends and family of those killed or injured by Jason McGehee, Stacey Johnson, Marcel Williams, Kenneth Williams, Bruce Ward, Ledell Lee, Jack Jones, Don Davis, and Terrick Nooner have waited decades to receive some closure for their pain,” it read.
But even when executions take place, a surviving family’s pain doesn’t disappear with the perpetrator’s pulse.
It’s been more than two decades since Heath’s death. But Belinda Crites, a 41-year-old caregiver who still lives in her hometown of Malvern, Arkansas, finds laughter in her sweet memories of her cousin. A high school cheerleader, Heath wanted to be a police officer one day. She worked two jobs — at Taco Bell and a blue jean factory — and before she died, she earned enough money to buy a beat-up 1957 black Mustang. With each paycheck, Julie bought a new part, and she and her father, William Heath, restored the car together.
Whenever Crites visited her cousin’s house, they’d pile into bed together and watch episodes of their favorite television sitcom, “Family Matters.” For Christmas, Crites, Heath and both of their mothers dressed in matching outfits — nice jeans, ties or whatever was the latest fad — and baked cookies. The two mothers were inseparable, working and raising their families together. Crites and her cousin “always said we’d be just like them,” Crites said.
But after Heath’s murder, Crites said her family fell apart. Her mother, aunt and grandmother were all diagnosed with depression and needed medication. When Nancy Heath — her aunt and Julie’s mother — hugged Crites, she ran her fingers through Crites’ hair, long like her dead cousin’s; she held her tight, Crites said, as if she were “just trying to get a piece of Julie back.”
The family watched as Nancy Heath wasted away. They cried and hugged each other on March 31, 1994, when a jury sentenced Nance to death. But after the family left the courtroom and got into their cars to drive home, Heath became incoherent. Her husband rushed her to the hospital, where doctors observed her overnight, Crites said.
Nancy Heath’s psychologist later begged her to at least eat bananas and watermelon, but she refused food. If she left Crites’ house to go to the store, her family knew to follow her — often, she drove instead in the direction of the cemetery where Julie was buried. Crites’ mother once found Nancy Heath there overdosed on pills. Crites said her aunt attempted suicide at least four times before she killed herself on Christmas morning in 1994, 15 months after her daughter’s murder.
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Source: PBS, Laura Santhanam, April 22, 2017
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