Growing up in Toledo, Ohio, Gina Grimm always wondered who her biological parents were. “You know, you go to the supermarket and think, ‘That lady kinda has my nose.’ Or, you know, ‘That man kinda has a resemblance to my face.’” Her adoptive parents never discouraged her from acting on her curiosity. “I made very clear since I was young that eventually one day I would find them,” she says. That day arrived in 2010, after 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.
His crimes were the stuff of nightmares. 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 Jones was convicted, his DNA was found to match evidence from another murder that had gone unsolved, 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 had no way to process what she had learned. She was dizzy with shock, guilt, and confusion about the man who gave her life. “I had a lot to think about,” she recalls. “It truly opened a can of worms.” Grimm had grown up comfortable, even sheltered, with no real contact with the criminal justice system. While reeling from the revelation about her father, she began to feel grateful that she had been raised in a family better equipped to take care of her. Whatever led her father to such a dark and violent place, Grimm felt compelled to let him know that he had done the right thing by putting her up for adoption. She thought he should know that his daughter had turned out OK.
Grimm wrote this to Jones in a letter, which she sent to his P.O. Box address at the Varner Unit in Grady, Arkansas. He responded immediately. Before long, Grimm had boxes of letters from him, along with paintings he made for her two young children. “We just built a very intense bond,” she said. Whoever her father had been when he committed his crimes, Grimm was seeing a different side of him now. She believed he belonged in prison. But she also believed he had changed. Then, this past February, Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson announced 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.
On Monday night, Grimm stood outside the Cummins Unit of the Arkansas Department of Corrections, which houses the state’s execution chamber. The sun was beating down, although it was after 6 p.m. 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.” The details stood in contrast to basic information about how the state planned to kill Jones: The source of the execution drugs was officially secret, as were the identities of the executioners. Asked whether the same prison staffers would be placing the intravenous lines and administering the lethal injections for both Jones and Marcel Williams, who was also set to die that night, public information officer Solomon Graves declined to answer, citing Arkansas law.
Security was heavy that evening. In a field outside the prison, a protest area had been designated using caution tape. Cars were searched upon entering; some people were frisked. A police helicopter sat nearby, facing the area, for reasons that were not completely clear. (That information was secret too.) A mobile command unit towered over a fleet of cop cars. Across the field, a separate area was designated for supporters of the executions. There, members of the Phillips family were gathered, with a small child in tow. One man held a sign that said “Eye for an Eye, Tooth for a Tooth.”
Grimm’s trip to Arkansas had come together quickly, thanks in large part to 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, Bonowitz has raised funds and helped organize the effort to push back against the execution spree in Arkansas. With his assistance — and with the help of her mother, who donated airline miles — Grimm had arrived in Little Rock in time to visit her father the day before, staying in a cheap hotel in the nearby town of Pine Bluff. 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.
Grimm is 32, with dyed red hair and a silver nose ring. A large tattoo on her arm reads “Daddy’s girl,” not a tribute to Jones, but rather to the man who raised her. (“Family is everything,” she says.) A single mom, she has chosen to be honest with her kids about their biological grandfather. “They’re very aware that he’s done terrible things. But he doesn’t deserve this. And I’m raising them to know that this isn’t right. It’s not OK.” As we spoke, seeking shade in the grass between two parked cars outside the protest area, a police officer ordered us to get behind the yellow caution tape. Grimm responded that her father was one of the men set to die that night and respectfully asked for five more minutes to cool off.
Unlike other states, Arkansas does not allow relatives to witness executions. Jones’s sister, Lynn Scott, had fought for weeks to be allowed to view the execution, pleading with officials to no avail. Grimm, too, said she would have been a witness in a heartbeat. “It might sound very dark to some people, and it is,” she said. “But the people that are gonna kill my dad are gonna have hateful eyes on him, in my opinion.” She had no desire to see her father killed, but it would have been worth it just for him to have someone there who loved him.
There was another reason to want to see the execution, although it was harder to talk about. 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.
As the execution hour approached, protesters huddled together. 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.
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. Raff, who retired two years ago, was the longest serving district attorney in Arkansas history. The murder of Mary Phillips was one of just a handful of cases in which he chose to seek the death penalty over the course of his career. “I always tried to look at the likelihood that that defendant was truly dangerous, very likely to offend in a homicidal manner again,” he said over the phone last month. He also let the victim’s feelings factor in some, he added. “Some victims don’t want the death penalty. And I always valued that input too.”
The Phillips family wanted the death penalty. The jury complied. The brutality had just been unmistakable. Raff, who visited the crime scene, recalled the harrowing moment police realized that Lacy Phillips was still alive. “They were taking photographs of the crime scene,” he said, “and they noticed blood coming from the bathroom.” There, they found Lacy, tied up and badly beaten. When the crime scene photographer began to take her photo, her eyes opened. Raff still has the picture, he said.
Yet the portrait of Jones was more complex than his grisly crimes. There were aspects of his life that pointed to severe mental health problems dating back to when he was young, which jurors never heard about before they sentenced him to die. 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.
Raff had no desire to watch Jones’s death, he said. But he felt an obligation to the Phillips family. He was aware of the arguments being made about the state’s protocol; when I asked him if he feared anything would go wrong, he said that in the past, “I was absolutely not concerned.” But he added, “To be honest with you, I’m just not sure now.” He expressed relief that there were people scrutinizing the protocol, to make sure it would work as planned.
Afterward, Raff said everything had appeared to go smoothly. He praised the prison staff as calm and professional, which he called “kind of amazing” given the stress they must have felt at the back-to-back executions. Nothing seemed amiss with the procedure, he said. “From what I saw — and understanding I don’t have medical training to recognize anything specific — I didn’t recognize anything out of the ordinary or see anything that indicated any problems.” Raff 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.
Raff pointed out that the Department of Corrections captures the execution on videotape. He didn’t know if the videos were stored or not, he said, but if one really wanted to know if things went smoothly, “it would be better than witness statements.” But he acknowledged that the state was not likely to release it.
Grimm was doing OK, relatively speaking, as she stood outside the prison following her dad’s execution. 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.
Grimm was not looking at her phone. She was still holding the sense of relief that her father had not suffered. It would be short-lived. Shortly before 9:30, loud wailing broke through the quiet conversation outside the prison. 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, letting the information sink in. “It was the one thing,” she said, trailing off.
Arkansas officials immediately rejected the claims in the motion, accusing defense attorneys of having authored it beforehand. The state 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. Besides, the state does not count the placing of IV lines as part of the official execution timeline. It happens out of the view of witnesses. At the prison, J.R. Davis, a spokesperson for Gov. Hutchinson, described the execution as “flawless.”
On Twitter, media witnesses pushed back against the claim that Jones gulped for air, while acknowledging that they had seen him move his mouth. But in reality, no one knows exactly what happened on the gurney. The second drug in the three-drug protocol paralyzed Jones, making it impossible to know whether the anesthetic had worked as fully intended.
Marcel Williams was already on the gurney as courts considered the challenge brought by the emergency motion. It was eventually denied. After a short break, during which he was allowed back in his holding cell, and allowed to use the bathroom, his execution proceeded. Williams was declared dead at 10:33 p.m.
The next day, media witness Jacob Rosenberg described what he saw when the curtains went up. “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.”
Rosenberg, a reporter for the Arkansas Times, described the difficulty following the procedure. “No one announced that a drug was being given. The process simply moved along.” 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. “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 tortuous death.”
The morning after her father’s execution, Grimm woke up early and 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.” In front of the free eggs and coffee, 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. In Pine Bluff, everyone seems to know people behind the prison walls, either behind bars or working. In some families, there are both.
On the road to Little Rock later that day, Grimm felt a pressure in her chest, a deep-seated anxiety she could not shake. She was glad she came to Arkansas to say goodbye to her father. More unexpected, she now had friends who were part of an activist community she had never known existed. Yet as texts flooded her phone, with friends and family checking in on her, even the support felt overwhelming. She wished her evening flight back home was earlier. She just wanted to see her kids and her dogs, Grimm said, and try to begin to mourn, whatever that might look like.
“I just need to be somewhere normal,” she said.
“Everyone is rallying to find a vaccine for this virus. But for so long, no one cared to find a vaccine for the racial pandemic,” said health care scientist Hugo Caicedo.