LITTLE ROCK, Ark. – Clemency hearings started Friday at the Varner Unit for five of the eight death row inmates whose executions are next month.
Stacey Johnson and Ledell Lee, who are scheduled for back-to back lethal injections April 20, asked the Arkansas Parole Board to spare their lives Friday morning, recommending that Gov. Asa Hutchinson commute their sentences.
More than 20 years after the brutal murders of two Arkansas mothers, both Johnson and Lee maintain their innocence.
“I’m about to lose my life for a crime in which I didn’t commit,” Johnson told the board. “I’m not sitting here saying I’m no angel because I’m not an angel at all. There’s a whole lot of people who want me dead. They want to silence me.”
Johnson, 47, was condemned for the murder of Carol Heath at her De Queen home in 1993. She was killed on her daughter Ashley’s sixth birthday.
“No child should have to witness what Stacey Johnson did to my mother,” Ashley wrote in a letter the assistant attorney general read to the board. “I have chosen not to watch the execution… I have forgiven you… Now I want you to admit you murdered my mother.”
“Twenty-three years, 11 months and 23 days,” said Heath’s son, Jonathan Erickson, who was two years old at the time of her murder. “I wake up every day and add another day to the calendar. The courts and juries made their decision. Punishment was death and I think it needs to go as planned.”
Johnson argued for a re-trial, telling the parole board the prosecution’s eyewitness in his case, Ashley, was coached. He also stressed how Sevier County “made a mockery of DNA testing.”
“There’s an accumulation of things here that should make the board question the jury’s decision that found Stacey Johnson guilty,” said Johnson’s attorney, Jeff Rosenzweig.
Lee waived his appearance Friday. His attorney, Lee Short, explained to the board the significance of the empty chair next to him.
“He’s got a skepticism of any government hearing and one that’s pretty well founded,” Short said. “He’s not asking for forgiveness. He’s not remorseful for a murder he didn’t commit.”
Short argued during Lee’s two trials, both his counsel and the judge had conflicts of interest. He also criticized the amount of time the inmates had to put together a clemency request, complaining he found out via the news that his client would be on the execution schedule.
“Somehow a man’s life is at stake and I had ten days to plead for his life,” Short said. “Nothing about that is fair.”
Lee, 51, was condemned for the murder of his neighbor, Debra Reese, at her Jacksonville home in 1993.
The prosecutor at Lee’s trial detailed at Friday’s hearing the violent crimes Lee committed against five women, including Reese, which all involved rape. She said the victims’ ages ranged from 17 to 70 and they all lived in the Sunnydale area.
“He was a psychosexual serial rapist and no ordinary killer,” said Holly Lodge-Meyer. “He’s a super predator. He’s a hunter.”
Reese’s son, Joseph Lucky, begged the board to deny Lee’s clemency request.
“He is the embodiment of the evil that should never have to exist in this world,” said Lucky. “My mother was everything to me. When she was ripped from my life, it started a spiral that I almost didn’t recover from.”
The parole board said it should release a decision on Johnson and Lee by early next week. If granted clemency, the governor ultimately decides whether or not to spare their lives.
The next death row inmate’s clemency hearing is Monday.
The other double executions are scheduled for April 17, 24 and 27.