Soldier to be executed for multiple murders

By Michelle Tan - Staff writer
Posted : Tuesday Nov 25, 2008 13:04:36 EST

The first military execution since 1961 is scheduled to take place Dec. 10 at the Federal Correctional Complex in Terre Haute, Ind., Army officials announced Nov. 20.

Pvt. Ronald A. Gray was convicted of multiple murders and rapes in the late 1980s in the Fayetteville, N.C., area. At the time, Gray was a specialist with the 82nd Airborne Division at Fort Bragg, N.C.

The court-martial panel that convicted Gray sentenced him to death in 1988. On July 28, 2008, President Bush approved the order to execute Gray, the longest-serving inmate on the military’s death row. It was the first time a president had approved a military death sentence since 1957, and the decision came after the nation’s highest courts upheld Gray’s conviction and death sentence, and two petitions to the Supreme Court during the appellate process had been denied.

The last military execution took place when John A. Bennett was hanged April 13, 1961, for the rape and attempted murder of an 11-year-old Austrian girl.

However, Gray may seek a stay in federal district court, said Dwight Sullivan, a civilian appellate counsel for the Air Force and a Marine Reserve colonel who is a military death penalty expert.

Gray’s attorneys can file a request to stay his execution in order to file a federal habeas review petition, Sullivan said. Depending on the outcome at various levels of the court system, the case could be heard by the U.S. Supreme Court, he said.

Before he was executed, Bennett’s attorneys filed a habeas petition, Sullivan said.

“We don’t have an example since ’61, but in ’61 the whole habeas [process] all played out in two and a half years,” he said.

Gray’s appeals were exhausted in 2001, but now that his case has proceeded to this level, his attorneys can pursue the habeas petition in an effort to stop the execution, Sullivan said.

“We don’t know if he will file for a stay,” he said. “We don’t know if he will file a habeas petition. If he doesn’t, we’ll have our first [military] execution since ’61.”

If he doesn’t file a petition, Gray, who is housed in the U.S. Disciplinary Barracks at Fort Leavenworth, Kan., will be executed by lethal injection.

Fifteen service members – six soldiers, seven Marines and 2 airmen – have been sentenced to death since 1984, which is when the current military death penalty system went into effect, Sullivan said.

Four of them are on death row at Fort Leavenworth, and another remains under a death sentence but has since been moved to Camp Lejeune, N.C., pending ongoing litigation. Six others have since had their death sentences changed to life sentences, and four more have had their death sentences set aside and are waiting for the outcome of ongoing litigation, Sullivan said.

Gray was a specialist with the 82nd Airborne Division at Fort Bragg, N.C., when he was convicted in April 1988 of two counts of premeditated murder, one count of attempted premeditated murder and three counts of robbery. He also was convicted of burglary and larceny.

According to Associated Press reports, Gray, 42, was convicted in connection with a spree of four murders and eight rapes in the Fayetteville, N.C., area between April 1986 and January 1987 while he was at Fort Bragg.

Gray pleaded guilty to two murders and five rapes and was sentenced in civilian court in North Carolina to three consecutive and five concurrent life terms, according to AP.

He was then court-martialed and convicted of raping and killing Pvt. Laura Lee Vickery-Clay on Dec. 15, 1986. She was shot four times with a .22-caliber pistol and suffered blunt force trauma, according to AP. He also was convicted of raping and killing Kimberly Ann Ruggles, a civilian cab driver in Fayetteville. Ruggles was bound, gagged and stabbed repeatedly.

Finally, Gray was convicted of raping, robbing and attempting to kill Pvt. Mary Ann Lang Nameth in her barracks at Fort Bragg on Jan. 3, 1987, the AP reported.

Before Bush signed the execution order, Gray had appealed his case through the Army Court of Criminal Appeals and the Court of Appeals for the Armed Services, according to AP. The Supreme Court declined to hear his case in 2001.

The case against Gray was received at the White House in September 2005, and he was notified of the signed execution order on July 28, 2008, the same day Bush signed the order, according to officials at Fort Leavenworth.

The case against another military death row inmate had also been presented to the White House, which must affirm all military executions. Pvt. Dwight J. Loving has been on death row since April 1989 for, among other crimes, shooting, killing and robbing two cab drivers in Killeen, Texas.

His case was sent to the White House in January 2006 but since then has become tied up in litigation. His case is pending at the Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces, and no action is expected at least until August 2009.

Service members on death row at Fort Leavenworth are:

• Loving, who was convicted in April 1989 at Fort Hood, Texas, of robbing and killing two cab drivers in Killeen, Texas. One driver, Pvt. Christopher L. Fay, was working for extra money. The other, Bobby Sharbino, was a retired Army sergeant.

• Army Sgt. Hasan K. Akbar was convicted in May 2005 at Fort Bragg, N.C., of killing two officers and wounding 14 fellow soldiers in a fragging incident on March 23, 2003, at Camp Pennsylvania in Kuwait.

• Senior Airman Andrew P. Witt was convicted in October 2005 at Robins Air Force Base, Ga., of stabbing to death Senior Airman Andy Schliepsiek and his wife, Jamie, on July 5, 2004, in their home on base. He also was convicted of stabbing Jason King, a friend of the couple who survived the attack.

Two recent residents of military death row are Marine Lance Cpls. Kenneth G. Parker and Wade G. Walker.

Parker was convicted in July 1993 at Camp Lejeune, N.C., of being the triggerman in two killings: the March 1992 murder of Lance Cpl. Rodney L. Page in Jacksonville, N.C., and the killing of Lance Cpl. Christopher Q. James, who he shot with the same 12-gauge shotgun four days later.

Parker remains under a death sentence, but he was moved to Camp Lejeune while the courts determine if he is mentally retarded, which would mean that he can not be executed, Sullivan said.

Walker was convicted in July 1993 on capital charges for his role in the murders carried out by Parker. Walker’s death sentence was set aside July 8, 2008, by the Navy-Marine Corps Court of Criminal Appeals. The court ruled that the judge at his court-martial improperly denied a request for a continuance, which denied his defense attorneys the proper opportunity to prepare for trial. His case is still pending, and depending on the outcome, he could be resentenced to death, Sullivan said.

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