The man convicted for cutting the throat of a woman while her two young children hid in a nearby closet in De Queen, Ark., again avoided death with a stay of execution Wednesday.
Stacey Eugene Johnson, 47, was scheduled to be executed by lethal injection Thursday. But the Arkansas Supreme Court issued a stay of execution Wednesday.
"I am both surprised and disappointed at the last minute stay by the Arkansas Supreme Court," Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson said in a statement. "When I set the dates, I knew there could be delays in one or more of the cases, but I expected the courts to allow the juries' sentences to be carried out since each case had been reviewed multiple times by the Arkansas Supreme Court, which affirmed the guilt of each. The minority opinion was clear in its dissent, but I know the families of the victims are anxious for a clear-cut explanation from the majority as to how they came to this conclusion and how there appears to be no end to the court's review. I will continue to work with the attorney general as we evaluate our next steps."
Johnson was convicted for the murder of Carol Heath, 25, who was found dead in a De Queen duplex in 1993.
In a 4-3 ruling Wednesday, the Arkansas Supreme Court issued a stay for Johnson and ordered a new hearing in a lower court.
"The Arkansas Supreme Court in 2004 unanimously rejected an identical argument brought by inmate Stacey Johnson, but today (Wednesday) by a vote of four to three, the court has without legal explanation blocked the execution of an individual sentenced by two different juries," Arkansas Attorney General Leslie Rutledge said in a statement. "I know that this is disappointing and difficult for Carol Heath's family and her two children who were home at the time of the murder. I am evaluating options on how to proceed to ensure that justice is carried out."
She said she has filed a motion for reconsideration of the stay.
Heath died between the night of April 1 and the early morning hours of April 2, 1993. Her 6-year-old daughter and 2-year-old son hid in a closet while their mother was killed, according to reports. The children stayed in the closet all night.
The children's footprints were found near their mother.
Heath's death was caused by a cut to her throat, strangulation and blunt-force head injuries, said Dr. Frank Peretti, an associate medical examiner for the State Crime Lab during the murder trial.
Johnson left a wound on Heath's neck that went a quarter-inch into her spine. She also had defensive wounds on her hands and arms. Peretti said the victim had a bite mark on her right breast and an abrasion on her left breast. Hairs found on her breasts were tested and the DNA matched Johnson.
The woman's daughter was able to make a statement to investigators the day her mother was found.
Rose Cassidy, the victim's sister-in-law, called police after she found Heath's partially nude body lying on the living room floor in a pool of blood, according to reports.
Heath's daughter identified Johnson as the man who came to the apartment. She twice picked Johnson's photo out of seven photos shown to her by the police. The girl was later found to be incompetent to testify because of psychological trauma described by her psychologist.
Johnson was twice convicted and sentenced to death in the case. The Arkansas Supreme Court overturned the first conviction in 1996 because a police officer testified the victim's daughter had identified Johnson as the killer. The court said the hearsay evidence was improper and ordered a new trial. Johnson was again convicted and sentenced to death in 1997 without the hearsay evidence. The Arkansas Supreme Court upheld the decision in 2000. In another decision delivered May 18, 2006, by the state Supreme Court, the ruling said the trial court correctly found that the hairs were retested three times.
"The final DNA test of the hairs indicated a statistical frequency distribution that the genetic material belonged to someone in the African-American population other than the appellant (Johnson) was 1 in 20 million. We hold that the circuit court complied with the letter and spirit of our mandate. Another retest is not necessary," said the state Supreme Court ruling in the 2006 ruling.