How a daughter’s search for her biological father led her to an execution in Arkansas

Gina Grimm grew up in a comfortable home, sheltered by her adopted parents, yet she always wondered who her biological parents were and what they looked like. She made it clear she would go in search of her parents when she was older and her adoptive parents never discouraged her from acting out her curiosity.

Eventually, she went searching and that led her to the execution of her father and another in Arkansas.
In 2010, Grimm filed a petition with a probate court to have her birth certificate released. It came with contact information for her biological mother.

Grimm called her and that’s when she found out that her father was Jack Jones Jr., a man on Arkansas’s death row. He was given the death sentence for a couple of heinous crimes which shocked Grimms. In 1995, in the small town of Bald Knob, Arkansas, Jones had beaten, strangled, and raped a woman named Mary Phillips inside the county tax office where she worked. Jones also viciously attacked her 11-year-old daughter, Lacy, who miraculously survived. After his conviction, his DNA was found to match evidence from another unsolved murder, of a woman named Lorraine Anne Barrett, killed in Florida while on vacation in 1991. Jones was tried for that crime while on death row in Arkansas. He was sentenced to life, in addition to his existing death sentence.

Grimm was both shocked and also relieved that she had grown up comfortable, even sheltered, with no real contact with the criminal justice system. This made her grateful that she had been given up for adoption and raised in a family better equipped to take care of her. She decided to get in touch with her father to let him know he did the right thing by putting her up for adoption and that she turned out OK. She wrote Jones a letter at the Varner Unit in Grady, Arkansas and he responded immediately. Soon, Grimm had boxes of letters from him, along with paintings he made for her two young children. She revealed that they built an intense bond and she believed her father was a changed man. She also chose to be honest with her kids about their biological grandfather, made them realise that he did bad things.

Just as soon as Grimm had formed a bond with her father, th Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson announced this past February that after almost 12 years without any executions in the state, he had signed death warrants for eight men whose appeals had run out. The state’s stash of midazolam — the first of three drugs chosen by the state to carry out executions — was set to expire at the end of April. So officials would move fast, killing them in twos, beginning on April 17 and ending on April 27. Jones was one of them, set to die on April 24. The second inmate set to die on the same day as Jones was Marcel Williams.

Grimm was upset about the development and thought it was not OK to carry out an execution. With the help of Abraham Bonowitz, a veteran anti-death penalty activist from Ohio and founder of Death Penalty Action, accompanied by Randy Gardner, whose brother was executed by firing squad in Utah in 2010, funds were raised for Grimm to travel to Arkansas. She arrived in Little Rock in time to visit her father the day before his execution. It would be the first and last time she saw her father in person. The two held hands and tried to keep things lighthearted, she said. “We forgave each other for any things that we ever said that was hurtful. We talked about the day I was born.” At one point, he took off his wedding ring and gave it to Grimm, who now wore it on a chain around her neck.

On Monday night, at 6 p.m., Grimm stood outside the Cummins Unit of the Arkansas Department of Corrections, which houses the state’s execution chamber. Her father had been moved to a cell adjacent to the room where he was set to die. He had eaten his last meal, dutifully disclosed by prison officials as “three pieces of fried chicken, potato logs with tartar sauce, beef jerky bites, three Butterfinger bars, one chocolate milkshake with Butterfinger pieces and fruit punch.”

Security was heavy in a field outside the prison. A protest area had been designated for anti-death penalty activists while supporters of the executions were at a separate area designated for them on the field. Family members of Phillips, the woman killed by Jones, were gathered there with a small child in tow. One man held a sign that said “Eye for an Eye, Tooth for a Tooth.”. Phillips family had made it clear during the trial that they wanted the death penalty and the jury complied.

Jones’s sister, Lynn Scott, was also present for the execution and had fought for weeks to be allowed to view the execution but it was against Arkansas law, unlike other states that allow it, so her plea yielded no result. Grim was also willing to be a witness just to ensure that her father would have a loved one there for him but she was denied that. Another reason why Grimm wanted to observe the execution was to be sure it did not go awry, thereby causing her father to suffer for more than necessary. Attorneys and advocates had warned for weeks of the dangers posed by the double execution: Not only was midazolam, a sedative never meant for executions, linked to numerous executions gone awry, but the health problems suffered by both Jones and Williams made the procedure riskier still. Both men were obese, which would likely make it hard to find a vein. Jones had diabetes and was on medication; one of his legs had been amputated years before.

Around 7 p.m., with the execution understood to be underway, protesters took turns ringing a loud, mournful bell, as Bonowitz spoke iconic words by the poet John Donne: “Any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind,” he said. “Don’t ask for whom the bells tolls. It tolls for thee.”

At 7:23, a TV reporter in a bright blue dress got a phone call, approaching Bonowitz. “It’s done,” he said. The state set the time of death at 7:20 p.m., with everything appearing to go smoothly. Through tears, Grimm expressed relief. She hugged the activists who brought her there and prayed with a group of Episcopal priests. They prayed for Jones, for the Phillips and Barrett families, for the prison guards, for the governor, and for the state of Arkansas.

Details of the execution:

There were 18 official witnesses at the execution of Jack Jones Jr., according to the state. Three were from the media. Four were relatives of the Phillips family. Among the rest was Chris Raff, who prosecuted Jones back in White County in 1996.

During Jones’s trial, there were aspects of his life that were not taken into consideration and jurors never heard about them before they sentenced him to die. There were incidents that pointed to severe mental health problems dating back to when he was young. A report by the Harvard-based Fair Punishment Project sheds light on some of them. Jones had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder and had a history of depression. According to an amicus brief authored by the project’s director, Rob Smith, Jones had hallucinations of “bugs, ants and spiders” attacking him. When he was older, Jones “tried to commit suicide in 1989 and again in 1991, when he jumped off a bridge. Only then did he receive psychiatric attention.” Before the murder of Mary Phillips, Jones “committed himself to the hospital, again reporting suicidal ideation. It is then that he finally received his bipolar diagnosis.” Mental illness often gets worse on death row, exacerbated by long bouts of isolation. While Jones seemed to be able to function well enough to relate to his relatives, his physical condition had significantly deteriorated. On the night of his execution, prison staff planned to wheel him into the chamber in a restraint chair.

Afterward, Raff said everything had appeared to go smoothly but said he did notice that Jones’s lips kept moving once the prison staff cut off the sound from his microphone, which had captured a lengthy final statement, but he could not tell what it meant. He did not know when, exactly, Jones had been given the midazolam.

However, soon after Jones’s execution, as Grimm and other protesters waited to hear if Marcel Williams’ execution will move forward, emails and tweets began circulating that Jones’s execution had not gone smoothly.

As she and other protesters waited to hear if the execution of Marcel Williams would move forward, emails and tweets began to circulate suggesting that all had not gone smoothly with Jones after all. In an emergency motion filed shortly after 8 p.m., attorneys tried to block the state from proceeding with Williams’s execution, reporting that “infirmary staff tried unsuccessfully to place a central line in Mr. Jones’s neck for 45 minutes before placing one elsewhere on his body.” The same motion cited unnamed witnesses who reportedly saw Jones had “moved his lips and gulped for air” after the midazolam should have rendered him unconscious.

Just before 9:30 a loud cry broke out outside the prison, it turned out that a reporter had called Lynn Scott, asking her to respond to the news that her brother had shown signs of suffering. “I knew it!” she cried, sobbing uncontrollably. Grimm was stunned. Arkansas officials immediately rejected the claims in the motion. They conceded that staff had tried and failed to put a central line in Jones’s neck for 45 minutes but said they had done so with his consent, given his physical condition. At the prison, J.R. Davis, a spokesperson for Gov. Hutchinson, described the execution as “flawless.”

On Twitter, media witnesses acknowledged they had seen Jones move his mouth but pushed back against the claim that Jones gulped for air. Soon after, Williams execution proceeded and he was declared dead at 10:33 p.m.

The next day, media witness Jacob Rosenberg described what he saw when the curtains went up for Williams’ execution. He described the difficulty following the procedure.

“Light from fluorescent bulbs cast a strange yellow glow in the room in front. Marcel Williams’s eyes looked right up at the ceiling. He was on a gurney, tied down. His head was locked in place and the right side of his body was facing us, the viewers. He said no final words.

“No one announced that a drug was being given. The process simply moved along,” he said. He also said he saw Williams’s eyes droop and close, although “the right one lingered slightly open throughout.” Eventually, “his breaths became deep and heavy. His back arched off the gurney as he sucked in air. I could not count the number of times his body moved in such a way, rising off the gurney.”

In an email to Bonowitz, trauma surgeon Jonathan Groner shared his own disturbing impression.

He wrote: “Sounds like tonight’s Arkansas execution was botched,” he wrote. “No one would try to place a central line in the neck of a 400 pound man without ultrasound guidance and a lot of previous experience. Who was placing the line? Central lines are typically inserted by physicians who have specific training. If the line was not in correct position in the soft tissues of the neck instead of in the vein, the drugs would take effect very slowly and lead to a torturous death.”

The morning after her father’s execution, Grim went down to the lobby of her hotel, picking up a newspaper from a stack outside the breakfast area. Her dad’s face was on the front page, with the headline, “2 Killers Executed Hours Apart.” Grimm broke down crying. A hotel employee comforted her. She told Grimm that her own husband died some years earlier while imprisoned at the Varner Unit, a result of medical neglect.Jack Jones’s final words and final written statement before his execution:

When  asked if he had any final words before his death, he said:

“Well, I just want to let the James family and Lacey how sorry I am. I can’t believe I did something to her. I tried to be respectful from the time I took and become a better person. I hope I did better. I hope over time you could learn who I really am and I am not a monster. There was a reason why those
things happened that day. I am so sorry Lacey; try to understand, I love you like my child.”

Jones also prepared a written statement for his attorney to read, as follows:

“I want people to know that when I came to prison I made up my mind that I would be a better person when I left than when I came in. I had no doubt in my mind that I would make every effort to do this. I’d like to think that I’ve accomplished this.I made every effort to be a good person — I practiced Buddhism and studied physics. I met the right people and did the right things. There are no words that would fully express my remorse for the pain that I caused.”

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