Bush Nods First Military Execution in 51 Years


Ronald A. Gray, an Army private, has been sentenced to death, and President Bush has approved the execution. This case is most notable because it is the first time since 1957 that a military execution has received presidential approval, according to a report by the Associated Press.

President Bush could have commuted Gray’s sentence to life in prison, but refused to do so because of the severity and grisly nature of the crimes. Gray, a former Army cook, was convicted for four murders and eight rapes in the Fayetteville, North Carolina area between April 1986 and January 1987. At that time, he was stationed at Fort Bragg. He was convicted of the crimes and sentenced to the death penalty in April 1988. He has been waiting on death row at the U.S. Disciplinary Barracks in Fort Leavenworth, Kansas.

There has been much talk in the news recently about the application of the death penalty. The U.S. Supreme Court recently ruled that the death penalty is not appropriate for child rapists, a decision that caused the death sentence of a Louisiana man to be commuted to life in prison. The man, Patrick Kennedy, was convicted of the brutal rape of his stepdaughter. After the attack, the child needed surgery to repair internal injuries. A jury decided that Kennedy should die for his crime, but after his criminal defense attorney appealed the decision, the Supreme Court decided that the death penalty is not an option for the crime of rape.

Death by lethal injection has also recently spurred lawsuits and plenty of debate. A lawsuit filed by two Kentucky death row inmates had effectively put all executions on hold in the United States while the Supreme Court examined the lethal injection procedure and determined whether or not it constituted cruel and unusual punishment. On April 16, 2008, the court found that the three step procedure used for lethal injection executions in the United States is humane and does not constitute cruel and unusual punishment. Following that decision, executions by lethal injection resumed after an almost 7-month moratorium.

On July 28, 2008, President Bush decided that execution was the only fair and just punishment for Gray. Not only was this the first time that a president has affirmed a military death sentence, but it was also the first time in 46 years that a president has even considered such a case. Ten members of the U.S. military have been executed after presidential approval since 1951, when the Uniform Code of Military Justice was enacted.

President Kennedy was the last president to weigh the life or death decision of a service member. Kennedy commuted the death sentence of Navy seaman Jimmie Henderson to life in prison. President Eisenhower was the last president to approve a military execution. Eisenhower approved the execution of John Bennett in 1957. Bennett was an Army private who was convicted of raping and attempting to kill an 11-year-old Austrian girl.

While Bennett was hanged in 1961, current military rules call for executions to be carried out by lethal injection.

Gray was convicted of the rapes and murders in both civilian and military courts. In civilian court in North Carolina, he pleaded guilty to two murders and five rapes and was sentenced to three consecutive and five concurrent life sentences. He then went on trial by general court-martial at Fort Bragg and was convicted and unanimously sentenced to death.

Gray appealed his case through the Army Court of Criminal Appeals and the Court of Appeals for the Armed Services. The basis for some of his appeals was focused on his mental competency and his legal representation at trial. In 2001, the Supreme Court declined to hear the case. Bush’s decision may appear to be the final word on the matter, but in reality, Gray may not be executed for quite some time. Further appeals in the case are expected and death sentence appeals often take years to exhaust. Additionally, if and when Gray is executed, it is still unclear where the execution would occur.