On this date in 1999, Arkansas went retro with the double execution of Mark Gardner and Alan Willett.
Not uncommonly a party of malefactors — like the Lincoln assassination conspirators, the Rosenbergs, or Sacco and Vanzetti — would all get their deserts together, symbolically tying up the crime. So too the convenience of the state, or its interest in an impressive show of force, could put together a group hanging just for the whole effect.
For whatever reason, Arkansas really cottoned to this format in the Nineties. It carried out a double execution on May 11, 1994, and two separate triple executions on August 3, 1994 and January 8, 1997. Volume packages account for nearly half of the 21 Arkansan executions in that decade.*
But the operational efficiency of killing people in multiples inevitably bowed in the more deliberate modern era to the overriding inefficiency of its supporting judicial process. Rare would be the day — especially for a smaller state like Arkansas — when more than one prisoner exhausted remedies at the same time, even if they’d begun their legal journey as parties to the same crime.
In this late degenerate age, whatever rationales may once have existed for group executions have faded well away. The double execution this date in 1999 was at best a minor public relations flourish, and there wasn’t any symbolic import at all. The two culprits were completely unconnected:
Mark Gardner, a career criminal out on parole who had slaughtered a family in order to rape their daughter and steal their valuables (last meal: fried shrimp, grilled salmon, garden salad, and chocolate cake with a Coke);**
Alan Willett, a guy who killed his own son and mentally impaired brother, then dropped appeals to volunteer for execution (last meal: beef jerky, barbecue-flavored potato chips, onion dip, garlic dip, buttered popcorn, and Pepsi)
The volunteer aspect helped make the twofer scheduling happen, but to what end? A “double execution” here really means two individual executions back-to-back, each one with its own witness room, its own set of last-minute appeals, its own dose of poison. So why bother coordinating execution dates when there are already so many other moving pieces in the machinery of death? It’s just bad engineering
So this date’s exercise was the last multiple execution in the United States save one. In 2000, the absolute high-water mark for execution pace in the country’s busiest death chamber, Texas injected Oliver Cruz and Brian Robertson on the same day, Aug. 9. That’s the last multiple-execution to date in the U.S.
Arkansas actually made a bid to conduct another one in 2004. Condemned prisoner Karl Roberts, like Willett a volunteer, picked up his appeals at the last moment and remains on death row to this day; the state had to settle for one out of two.
* All these dates and figures per the Death Penalty Information Center’s handy searchable executions database.
** Gardner piously anticipated “a never-ending feast” at “the Lord’s supper” in his last statement, but his worldly appetites were less transcendental. He was accused of rape by his neighbor on death row: Damien Echols.
Echols was one of the West Memphis Three convicted for a supposedly occult triple homicide during the late gasps of America’s infantile Satanism panic. This case became a cause celebre (literally so: Eddie Vedder, Johnny Depp, and other glitterati were among his vocal supporters), and the convictions were debunked to such an extent that Echols and his two friends (both serving prison terms) were all released earlier this year.
Echols is not offically “exonerated” since ass-covering prosecutors negotiated an Alford plea as the price of his liberty. He remains a convicted killer in the eyes of the state and among some holdout defenders of the original verdict. This polarizing case is the subject of the HBO documentary Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills and its sequel Paradise Lost 2. A third installment of the series is in post-production as of this writing.
Part of the Themed Set: Americana.