As Arkansas legislators review the state’s death penalty procedures, 37 men sit on death row for murder. Four of those 37 men, including the state’s longest-serving death row inmate, were convicted of murders in Southeast Arkansas..

The four inmates are Roger Coulter, Kenneth Isom, Derek Sales and Kenneth Williams, one of the nine death row inmates suing the state over its new execution law.

Roger Coulter

Roger Coulter

Roger Coulter, the state’s longest-serving death row inmate, has been on death row nearly half of his life.

Coulter, now 53, was convicted in October 1989 of the rape and murder of a 5-year-old Bradley County girl.

Coulter was was living with the child and her mother in Warren on April 12, 1989 when he was supposed to have taken the girl to the local Headstart Center.

She never arrived.

When Coulter failed to return the child from Headstart later that day, her family filed a missing-person report.

Responding to reports that Coulter’s vehicle had been seen near a power line cut in Bradley County, police officers began a search of that area. The child’s body was discovered the following day in a wooded area near the power line cut.

The child’s partially clothed body was found stuffed inside a hollow tree and covered by branches and leaves. She had been raped, suffocated and strangled. The state medical examiner would later testify that there was evidence that the child had been penetrated with a foreign object. He said her injuries were among the worst he had ever seen.

Coulter was arrested in California five weeks after the murder. In a change of venue, an Ashley County jury found Coulter guilty of rape and capital murder and sentenced him to die by lethal injection.

Among Coulter’s numerous claims on appeal was that his attorney was ineffective. He claimed his attorney failed to discover records that Coulter had been diagnosed as paranoid schizophrenic while he was incarcerated in Arizona. However, Coulter’s attorney had used his own personal funds to hire an independent psychologist to examine his client.

The psychologist testified that Coulter had a history of mental problems and had been treated in the past with medication. He said Coulter, while in a special-treatment unit in the Arizona prison system, was administered medication for his aggressive and explosive behavior. The psychologist said Coulter was also treated at a California mental-health center where he responded well to medication. However, once he was released from that facility, he failed to continue with the treatment on his own. Ultimately, the psychologist diagnosed Coulter as having antisocial personality disorder and a pattern of heavy alcohol abuse.

The state Supreme Court said Coulter failed to show how his attorney’s failure to discover any record of him having been diagnosed as paranoid schizophrenic prejudiced his trial.

Coulter claimed that had his attorney obtained the Arizona records, he would have been able to secure funds to hire an independent psychiatrist to evaluate his mental state. The court said that was a moot point because when the trial court denied Coulter’s request for funds for an independent evaluation, Coulter’s attorney used his own money to for the evaluation.

Coulter subsequently filed a mental retardation claim.

A psychiatrist testified at Coulter’s Ashley County trial that Coulter scored a 94 on his IQ test. Neither the psychiatrist nor the psychologist hired by Coulter’s defense attorney alluded to a diagnosis of mental retardation at trial, and it was never presented as mitigating evidence. Moreover, his IQ of 94 is substantially higher than the statutory threshold of 65, according to the state Supreme Court.

UPDATE: November 3, 2018
Coulter, 57, was found unresponsive in his cell shortly before 6:30 p.m. at the Varner Unit of the Arkansas Department of Correction. He was pronounced dead at 7:07 p.m. At the time of his death, Coulter was Arkansas’ longest-serving death-row inmate.

Kenneth Isom

Kenneth Isom

Death row inmate Kenneth Isom was convicted in December 2001 of the stabbing and bludgeoning death of a Drew County man and the rape and attempted murder of the man’s elderly caretaker.

A Drew County jury sentenced Isom, then 34, to death plus 100 years and two life sentences for the April 2001 murder of 79-year-old William Burton, the rape and attempted murder of Burton’s 72-year-old caretaker, and for aggravated robbery and residential burglary. Drew County had not sentenced anyone to death since the early 1960s.

Isom went to Burton’s home on April 2, 2001 and demanded money. The elderly woman who was in the home taking care of Burton following his hip replacement surgery told Isom to take what he wanted.

Isom raped the 72-year-old woman and forced her to perform sexual acts upon him in Burton’s presence. He then beat Burton with a lamp and stabbed him with scissors. Later, Isom took the woman into a bedroom, beat her, choked her, knocked her unconscious, and left her for dead. She was discovered 13 hours later.

The woman survived the attack and subsequently picked Isom from a photo lineup. At trial, she pointed to Isom in the court room, identifying him as her assailant.

In addition to the woman’s eyewitness account of the crimes, DNA evidence indicated there is a one in 57 million chance that another male of the black race is the man who raped the woman.

Isom’s attorneys argued at trial that it was a case of mistaken identity. The DNA results excluded all but one in 57 million people, but who is to say that three or four who are not excluded don’t live in Drew County, Isom’s attorney told the jury.

Isom subsequently appealed the conviction to the Arkansas Supreme Court.

The Supreme Court, in a 2004 ruling, said there was an abundance of evidence to support Isom’s conviction.

“While (the woman) didn’t see Mr. Isom stab Mr. Burton with the scissors or beat him with a lamp, she saw Mr. Isom with the scissors standing on Mr. Burton’s head and then physically lying on top of him. She also heard his threats. She was then beaten, knocked unconscious, and choked by Mr. Isom. Mr. Burton’s body was discovered the next morning, and his death was caused by multiple sharp and blunt force injuries. We conclude that there was more than sufficient evidence, direct and circumstantial, that Mr. Isom caused the death of Mr. Burton in the course of committing several felonies under circumstances manifesting extreme indifference to the value of human life,” the Arkansas Supreme Court said.

Following the Supreme Court’s 2004 ruling, Isom filed post-conviction petitions claiming that his trial attorney was ineffective and requesting additional DNA testing of two male cousins he claimed were suspects in the crimes. Circuit Judge Sam Pope denied both petitions, but did allow re-testing of Isom’s own DNA against the hair sample recovered from the rape victim. The re-testing did not exclude Isom as being a contributor of the sample.

Isom appealed those rulings to the Arkansas Supreme Court, which issued a December 2010 opinion denying the appeals. He has since appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Last year, Isom was was hospitalized for what Arkansas Department of Correction spokeswoman Shae Wilson called “serious medical issues.”

In an April 2012 interview, Wilson told Seark Today that Isom was taken to an undisclosed hospital then transferred to a prison hospital. She could not be reached Friday for an update on his condition or where he is currently being held.

UPDATE: January 2, 2019
Isom lost another appeal to the Arkansas Supreme Court. He contended that the Drew County Circuit Court abused its discretion in dismissing his petition for a writ of error coram nobis because the State suppressed evidence (a Brady violation), limiting discovery for an evidentiary hearing, and denying his motion that Circuit Judge Sam Pope recuse. The Arkansas Supreme Court found that the Drew County Circuit Court did not abuse its discretion in dismissing his Isom’s petition, did not abuse its discretion in limiting discovery, and did not abuse its discretion in denying the motion for recusal. Read the full story.

Derek Sales

Derek Sales

Derek Sales, 52, was sentenced to death for the April 2005 beating and stabbing death of 56-year-old Willie York, a frail, disabled Bradley County bootlegger who sold beer by the can in the dry county.

According to evidence presented at Sales’ May 2007 trial, York was murdered in his home where he ran his small bootlegging business.

York suffered from advanced rheumatoid arthritis and needed assistance in caring for himself. He weighed 102 pounds, had little use of his hands, and could not walk.

He spent most of his time in his living room where he had a bed and a recliner. He would sit in his recliner during the day until he was moved from his recliner and placed in bed for the night. He typically went to bed at 10 p.m., at the close of his business day.

Sales, who often went to York’s home, was there on April 16, 2005 at 6:30 p.m. when York’s family left to attend a basketball tournament.

Throughout the evening, the family checked on York to keep track of how he was doing. His granddaughters left the tournament and took him dinner about 9 p.m. Sales was there.

His daughter Lisa visited York’s home about 11:15 p.m. and stayed approximately fifteen minutes. At that time, York was still in his recliner and Sales was still there.

Shortly after Lisa’s visit ended, at about 11:30 p.m., she saw her nieces at the nearby Exxon station and instructed them to go put York to bed. As they drove up to the house, they were surprised that they could not see him through the window near his recliner. York should have still been sitting in his recliner because he needed assistance to get to his bed.

As the granddaughters drove closer to the house, they saw someone moving around inside. This frightened them, and they called York on their cell phones. He did not answer. The granddaughters then called 911 and Lisa.

One of the granddaughters recognized the figure in the house as Sales. She honked her car horn, but there was no response. Another granddaughter, also recognized Sales. One granddaughter reported that Sales moved to the back of the house, and then back to the front where he peered out the window. She saw his face at this time.

Lisa arrived and could see through the window that York was not in his chair or his bed. She then saw Sales. She tapped on the window, but Sales did not respond. He was bent over something she could not see.

Lisa then ran back toward the Exxon station where she found her cousin Ricky Hampton. Hampton ran to the house and looked in the window to see Sales bent over something with his arms fully extended while calling out York’s name. Hampton went to the back door but finding it locked he proceeded toward the front of the house.

At about this time, Warren police arrived. Officer Tim Cox saw a figure crouched as if trying to stay out of view. Cox also tried the back door. Upon hearing someone say “he’s coming out the front door,” Cox went around front where he confronted Sales on the front porch.

When someone said “he’s dead,” Sales bolted and Cox pursued. Cox tackled Sales and Hampton helped Cox subdue Sales. When Lisa shouted to Sales “I thought you were my Daddy’s friend,” Sales reportedly said “he wasn’t nothin’ to me.”

York was found lying on the floor with his head in a pool of blood under the recliner footrest. He was pronounced dead at the scene.

A kitchen knife was found not far from where York lay. Tests revealed that blood on the knife matched York’s blood.

When Sales was arrested, he had a large number of coins in his pockets. More coins were found under the seat in the car that was used to transport him to jail. A cigar box that York used as a cash register and to store personal papers was found at the crime scene. It contained twenty-eight cents and no personal papers.

A piece of paper containing York’s niece’s Medicaid number was found in Sales’ possession when he was processed at the Warren jail facility shortly after his arrest. York’s daughter testified that the piece of paper had been kept in York’s cigar box.

A pack of cigarettes, the brand York smoked, was also found on Sales.

Blood found on Sales’ shoes matched the DNA profile that was obtained from the blood sample from York. Sales’ footprints were in the blood at the scene.

Sales was convicted of capital murder and aggravated robbery. He was sentenced to death for the murder and received a life sentence for aggravated robbery after the court determined he was a habitual offender.

On Christmas Eve 2005, while in the Warren City Jail awaiting his capital murder trial, Sales and another prisoner, armed with a soap-filled sock and lotion bottles full of hot sauce, overpowered a jailer and escaped. Sales was captured within minutes but the other prisoner, Jesus Morales still has not been located.

The Arkansas Supreme Court upheld the sentences in 2008.

UPDATE: September 25, 2014
Sales subsequently filed a petition in Bradley County Circuit Court asking for post-conviction relief, claiming that his attorneys were ineffective. During opening statements, one of his attorneys referred to Sales’ escape. During the sentencing phase, his other attorney told the jury that if ales was sentenced to life imprisonment, there was a possibility that he might be pardoned by the governor. The circuit court said while both statements demonstrated that the attorneys’ representation of Sales fell below an objective standard of reasonableness, it could not conclude that the result would have been any different. Therefore, Sales suffered no prejudice as neither remark had any effect on the verdict at either stage. Sales appealed that decision to the Arkansas Supreme Court saying the circuit court erred in denying his petition. The Supreme Court found no error and upheld the circuit court’s decision. Read the full story.

Kenneth WIlliams

Kenneth Williams

Kenneth Williams

Kenneth Williams killed four people, including a Lincoln County farmer, a University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff cheerleader, a 36-year-old Pine Bluff man and a Missouri motorist.

Williams was sentenced to death for killing Cecil Boren, a Grady farmer who once worked as a warden at the prison where Williams escaped while serving a life sentence for the shooting death of the UAPB cheerleader.

Williams, now 34, avoided a death sentence in September 1999 when a Jefferson County jury sentenced him to life in prison for the December 1998 kidnapping and murder of Dominique Hurd, a cheerleader at the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff.

Less than a month later, while serving his life sentence at the Cummins Unit of the state prison system in Lincoln County, Williams escaped by hiding in a hog slop-filled tank of a garbage truck.

Before he was captured the following day, Williams killed two more people.

Williams, then 20, fatally shot 57-year-old Cecil Boren at Boren’s Grady farm near the Cummins Unit. Boren was shot in the head and back. Williams stole Boren’s pickup truck and several guns then drove to Missouri where he led police on a high-speed chase. Williams crashed Boren’s pickup truck into a delivery truck driven by a 24-year-old Missouri man. The Missouri man was killed in the crash.

In August 2000, 11 months after Williams’ was convicted of killing Hurd, a Lincoln County jury sentenced him to death for murdering Boren.

Five years later, in a letter to the editor of the Pine Bluff Commercial, Williams confessed to killing yet another person. In his September 2005 letter to The Commercial, Williams said he shot and killed 36-year-old Jerrell Jenkins of Pine Bluff on December 13, 1998, the same day that he murdered Hurd.

Williams is one of nine death row inmates suing the state over its new execution law.

UPDATE: November 28, 2017
Kenneth Williams, 38, was executed on November 27, 2017. He died at 11:05 p.m. Williams was fourth inmate in eight days executed by the state of Arkansas.

Death Penalty

The Arkansas Supreme Court last year said the state’s lethal injection law is unconstitutional because it delegated too much authority to the Department of Corrections.

In a 5-2 decision, the court sided with death row inmates who argued that only the Legislature can set execution policy. They said legislators violated the state’s separation of powers doctrine in 2009 when it voted to give that authority to the Arkansas Department of Correction.

“It is evident to this court that the legislature has abdicated its responsibility and passed to the executive branch, in this case the ADC, the unfettered discretion to determine all protocol procedures, most notably the chemicals to be used, for a state execution,” Associate Justice Jim Gunter wrote for the majority.

The ruling does not invalidate Arkansas’ death penalty but it did leave the state without a lawful way to carry out executions until a new law is passed.

The legislature responded with a new law that said the state has to use a lethal dose of a barbiturate in lethal injections and leaves it up to the ADC to pick the drug.

The death row inmates then filed a suit saying the new law allowing prison officials to use a slow-acting barbiturate in a mix of chemicals for lethal injections violates death-row inmates’ right to die quickly.

Earlier this year, Reprieve, a legal advocacy organization based in London, found that a U.S. subsidiary of Hikma sold 100 grams of phenobarbital to the Arkansas Department of Corrections. Arkansas decided to use the drug in their lethal injection process when they were unable to secure supplies of the drugs they normally use, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.

In a May 15 news release, Hikma said it strongly objects to the use of any of its products in capital punishment.

“The Company is putting in place concrete steps to restrict the supply of its products for unintended uses,” the news release reads. “It has ceased the direct sale of injectable phenobarbital to US departments of correction and will work directly with its distribution partners to add restrictions for unintended use to its distribution contracts.”

According to the Death Penalty Information Center, Hikma said the Arkansas Department of Correction order had been made as part of the regular request for drugs for prison hospital services and did not raise any red flags because the drug had never been used in executions before.

Arkansas has been contacted by the drug company and told that the subsidiary was closing the account.

The state’s current supply of phenobarbital is sufficient to carry out eight executions and will expire in October 2015. The state will need to seek alternative sources or different drugs when their current supply becomes unavailable.

Meanwhile, state officials are debating what to do following Attorney General Dustin McDaniel’s statement to the Arkansas Sheriffs Association earlier this month that the state’s death penalty system is broken.

McDaniel told the joint Judiciary Committee the unavailability of the lethal injection drug, lack of medical personnel willing to administer the lethal dose, and lawsuits have left the state unable to carry out executions. He said that in his view, Arkansas policy makers had two alternatives – either abolish the death penalty or change from lethal injection to another method of execution.

The state carried out its last execution on November 28, 2005 when 45-year-old Eric Wayne Nance of Hot Spring County was put to death for the October 1993 stabbing death of Julie Heath, an 18-year-old Malvern cheerleader.

Of the state’s 37 death row inmates, 15 are white males and 22 are black males.

The oldest death row inmate is  Steven Wertz, a 63-year-old white male sentenced in 2007 for the 1986 shotgun slayings of an Ash Flat couple. The youngest is Gregory Decay, a 28-year-old black male sentenced in 2008 for the shooting death of a young couple at their Fayetteville apartment in 2007.

Jerry Lard is the state’s newest death row inmate.

Lard, 39, was sentenced to death in July 2012 for the shooting death of a Trumann police officer during an April 2011 traffic stop.

In 2001 while working for the Pine Commercial, I covered the execution of Clay King Smith. Smith waived his right to appeal and was executed just three years after he killed five people. Those stories, including interviews with the victims’ families as well as the execution, first appeared in the Pine Bluff Commercial and are still available on a number of internet sites. The story of his execution is posted below.

May 09, 2001 SUN SETS ON MURDERER by Patty Wooten
Pine Bluff Commercial

Clay King Smith

As four members of his victims’ families watched on a closed circuit television, Clay King Smith was executed Tuesday night by lethal injection for murdering two women and three children in 1998.

The 30-year-old a former Bible student from Jefferson County was executed at the Cummins Correctional Unit for the fatal shooting of his ex-girlfriend Misty Erwin, her cousin Shelly Sorg, Sorg’s two children, and a 12-year-old family friend.

In his last words, while strapped to a gurney at the Cummins Correctional Unit, Smith apologized to his victims’ families.

“I’d like to say I’m sorry about what I did to the victims’ families,” he said. “I hope your hearts heal. I love my family. I love my family.”

At 9:03 p.m. a lethal mix of chemicals was injected into his arm. His eyes fluttered as he took three deep breaths and clinched his right hand. He was pronounced dead four minutes later at 9:07 p.m.

Smith’s spiritual advisor, the Rev. Robby Mitchell of El Dorado, said Smith appeared very calm prior to the execution.

“He was upbeat, calm and full of peace,” Mitchell said. “He told me he loved me and he had made his peace with God. He said when he took his last breath it would not be the end and he would see me again.”

Mitchell attributed the murders to to power of drugs. He said Smith, a former Bible student, told him he lost his walk with the Lord and got involved in drugs and satanism.

Though there were candlelight vigils at the Governor’s Mansion in Little Rock, there were no demonstrators on the grounds at Cummins when Smith was executed.

The bodies of Smith’s victims were found on March 25, 1998, in a mobile home at 3105 Pinto Road in Jefferson County where Smith had lived with his girlfriend Misty Erwin. He was arrested the following day in Lincoln County.

A Jefferson County jury convicted Smith of  killing Erwin, 20, Ewin’s cousin Shelly Sorg, 24, and Sorg’s children, Sean Michael, 5, and Taylor, 3. Samantha Rhodes, 12, a family friend, was also slain. 

Smith offered no witnesses at trial and waived his right to appeal but prior to the execution he wrote letters to the victims’ families saying that he would appeal if they asked him.

No one did.

Smith’s Little Rock attorney Tammy Harris, who spoke to him minutes before the execution, said he told her he had made his decision and was going through with the execution.

“He said he had made his peace and was resolved to go through with it,” Harris said.

Smith was the third consecutive death row inmate to waive at least part of his appeal rights.

David Dewayne Johnson, executed December 19, 2000 and Christina Marie Riggs, executed May 2, 2000, both waived part or all of their rights.

Smith’s execution was the 195th in Arkansas since 1913 when the state took over executions and the 24th after the state resumed killing death row inmates in 1990.