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Arkansas parole board suggests mercy for 1 of 8 due to die

FILE - This combination of undated file photos provided by the Arkansas Department of Correction shows death-row inmates Jason F. McGehee, left, and Kenneth Williams. Both men are scheduled for execution on April 27, 2017. (Arkansas Department of Correction via AP)

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) — The Arkansas Parole Board on Wednesday recommended that Gov. Asa Hutchinson alter the state’s unprecedented execution schedule and grant mercy to a death row inmate who directed the torture and murder of a teenager more than two decades ago.

Jason McGehee, 40, is one of eight inmates scheduled to die in four double executions this month. Hutchinson, who is not bound by the board’s finding that McGehee should have his sentence cut to life without parole, can intervene at any time before the execution begins on April 27. The Republican governor not said when he will make a decision.

Until Wednesday, the state Parole Board had rejected every death row clemency request presented to it since 1990.

With a key lethal injection drug expiring at the end of the month, the Arkansas Department of Correction hopes to execute eight men in a 10-day period beginning April 17. Only Texas has executed that many inmates in a month, doing it twice in 1997. Seven executions in a month would still be a record for Arkansas.

Prosecutors say McGehee, who had just turned 20, directed the fatal assault of Johnny Melbourne Jr., a 15-year-old who had told police about a northern Arkansas theft ring.

In voting 6-1 in favor of McGehee’s clemency request, the Parole Board considered letters and testimony from the judge from McGehee’s trial, a former Correction Department chief, members of McGehee’s family and the victim’s father.

“The death of John Melbourne, Jr. was the tragic result of a group-dynamic gone wrong,” retired Circuit Judge Robert McCorkindale wrote, according to documents released by the state Parole Board. McGehee was one of several people who participated in the attack, but was the only defendant sentenced to death, and the retired judge called it “an excessive punishment.”

Former Department of Correction Director Ray Hobbs told the panel at a 40-minute hearing Friday that McGehee had become a model prisoner.

“He still has value that can be given to others if his life is spared,” Hobbs said.

Linda Christensen, the inmate’s aunt, said in an affidavit filed with the board that McGehee suffered psychological abuse as a teenager, such as when his stepfather killed the boy’s dog after the dog fought with another dog for food.

The stepfather “got up and kicked Dusty in the side with his cowboy boots as hard as he could,” Christensen wrote. “He lay and suffered and the kids had to watch him die slowly. … Jason was never the same after that.”

Melbourne’s father had asked the board to reject McGehee’s clemency request.

“John didn’t have this. Even though he was begging for his life and was hurting. He didn’t have this and he begged for his life too. He didn’t have y’all,” the elder Melbourne said.

Board Chairman John Felts voted against clemency. He said McGehee’s death sentence wasn’t excessive considering the inmate had orchestrated the Aug. 19, 1996, attack. The boy was beaten and tortured at a house in Harrison, then bound and driven to an abandoned farmhouse outside Omaha, a town in northern Arkansas. He was later strangled while his hands were tied with an electrical cord.

In a separate decision Wednesday, the board said a petition by Kenneth Williams was without merit. Williams was condemned after escaping and killing a man who lived near the prison. Before his escape, he was serving a life term for killing a University of Pine Bluff cheerleader. Williams is also scheduled to die on April 27.

Williams is one of four inmates scheduled for execution this month whose clemency requests have been rejected by the Parole Board.

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