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Mar 24, 1:10 PM EDT

Arkansas inmates make longshot bid to avoid double execution

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VARNER, Ark. (AP) -- Two Arkansas inmates scheduled for back-to-back lethal injections next month asked the parole board Friday to spare their lives, a longshot bid as the state prepares for an unprecedented four nights of double executions over a 10-day period.

While Texas has executed eight people in a month - twice in 1997 - no state has executed that many prisoners in 10 days.

Stacey Johnson and a lawyer for Ledell Lee asked board members to recommend that Gov. Asa Hutchinson commute their sentences. Such efforts typically fail. The board is scheduled to deliberate Friday afternoon in Little Rock after hearing from relatives of the men's victims.

Of the 27 people executed in Arkansas since 1990, 20 had clemency requests rejected and the others didn't apply. Gov. Mike Huckabee commuted one man's sentence on his own after a reluctant juror stepped forward.

Johnson and Lee are set to die April 20. Other double executions are set for April 17, 24 and 27.

A key execution drug, the controversial sedative midazolam, expires three days after Kenneth Williams is set to go to the death chamber. Arkansas has had trouble obtaining the three lethal drugs it needs to put the men to death.

Friday's hearings were the first of five set over the coming week. Others are set Monday and next Friday.

"I'm about to lose my life for a crime I didn't commit," Johnson told the board at the Cummins Unit prison, not far from where he is to be put to death.

Lee's lawyer, Lee Short, said his client skipped the hearing with the belief that his due-process rights have been violated throughout the case.

"He's got a skepticism of any government hearing, and one that is well-founded," Short said.

The lawyer also complained that the inmates had too little time to put together a meaningful clemency request after their death warrants were signed less than four weeks ago.

Johnson, 47, was condemned for the 1993 death of Carol Heath, who was beaten and strangled and had her throat slit. DNA evidence included a hair found on Carol Heath's body. A cigarette butt found in the pocket of a shirt left at a roadside park with Heath's blood on it also had Johnson's saliva on it.

Lee, 51, was sentenced to die for the 1993 death of Debra Reese, a neighbor who was beaten to death in her home with a tire iron that her husband had given her for protection. She was struck 36 times.

Parole board paperwork shows that Lee spells his first name "Ledell" but the Arkansas Department of Correction lists it as "Ledelle."


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