ATLANTA - Georgia's top court rejected a last-minute reprieve for a death row inmate facing execution today after being convicted of killing his ex-girlfriend and her 11-year-old niece. His attorney said he will now urge the U.S. Supreme Court to halt the execution.
The Georgia Supreme Court today denied Melbert Ray Ford's motion to delay the lethal injection, which is scheduled for 7 p.m. at the state prison in Jackson.
Ford's attorney Brian Mendelsohn had argued that the death penalty is disproportionate and amounts to cruel and unusual punishment because he's sat on death row for more than two decades.
But state prosecutors countered the arguments were a "ruse" and pointed to other rulings that repeatedly upheld the death sentence.
Ford, 49, was convicted of killing Martha Chapman Matich and her niece Lisa Chapman in 1986 in what prosecutors say was a revenge killing. They say Ford began harassing her with phone calls after the couple broke up, and soon was telling friends he wanted to kill her.
He was initially set to be executed on Feb. 23 but it was delayed by more than three months because a spot on the five-member state clemency panel hadn't been filled. The execution was rescheduled for Wednesday after Gov. Sonny Perdue appointed a fifth member last month.
According to court records, Ford was so infuriated at his ex-girlfriend that he tried to recruit several friends in a plot to drive him to the Newton County convenience store where she worked so he could rob it and then attack her.
None would help him, though, until he met Roger Turner, a 19-year-old who was out of a job and nearly penniless. Ford plied Turner with alcohol and the promise of thousands of dollars in cash, eventually persuading him to join the plot, according to court testimony.
The two drove in Turner's car to Chapman's Grocery shortly after it closed on March 6, 1986. Ford leapt out, shot away the lower half of the locked door and entered the store while Turner waited in the car. Turner later said he heard only screams and gunshots while waiting for Ford, who would soon emerge with a bag of money, according to court records.
When authorities arrived, they found Matich lying dead behind the counter, shot three times. Chapman was found sitting on a bucket in a bathroom, shot in the head and having convulsions. She died shortly after.
The two men were arrested the next day and Turner confessed to authorities. Ford, meanwhile, told investigators the shooting began after Matich pushed the alarm button, and that if he had worn a mask it would not have happened.
A Newton County jury convicted Ford and sentenced him to death after an October 1986 trial in which he claimed he was too drunk to know what was happening and that Turner was the one who entered the store and started firing.
Prosecutors dropped murder charges against Turner, a key witness in Ford's trial, and he was sentenced to 20 years in prison on robbery charges. Turner was released on parole after serving only five years behind bars.
In several appeals, Ford argued that the jury failed to find any aggravating circumstances that would have justified a capital sentence. He also contended that prosecutors suppressed evidence about Turner's drug use the night of the killings and claimed his trial lawyer was ineffective.
The appeals were repeatedly denied by state and federal judges, and a petition to appeal the case to the U.S. Supreme Court was rejected on Jan. 25. The Georgia pardons board denied his appeal for clemency on Friday, and a county judge rejected a request to halt the execution on Tuesday.