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Lethal Injection

U.S. Military Could Execute Ex-Soldier for First Time Since 1961

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — A Kansas federal judge has lifted a stay of execution for a former soldier sentenced to death for two killings and a series of rapes, inching the man closer to becoming the military's first death sentence carried out in more than a half-century.

U.S. District Judge J. Thomas Marten last week sided with the U.S. government in denying a bid by former Fort Bragg, North Carolina, soldier Ronald A. Gray to block the military from pressing ahead with the execution by lethal injection.

Image: Ronald A. Gray in handcuffs and chains, escorted by military police leaving a Fort Bragg, N.C.
This April 1988 picture shows Ronald A. Gray in handcuffs and chains, escorted by military police leaving a Fort Bragg, N.C. courtroom. Marcus Castro / The Fayetteville Observer via AP, file

Since a military court sentenced him to die in 1988, Gray has been held at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, where the military carried out its last execution when it hanged Army Pvt. John Bennett in 1961 for raping and trying to kill an 11-year-old Austrian girl.

No known execution date has been set for Gray as of Tuesday. Though Gray's attorneys have said in recent court filings that they plan to ask military courts to intervene, that status of those appeals was unclear Tuesday. A message left by The Associated Press with Gray's capital public defender, Tim Kane, was not immediately returned.

Gray, 51, is among six people on the U.S. military's death row, according to the Death Penalty Information Center, a nonprofit research group that opposes capital punishment. Those inmates, whose appeals are pending, include Nidal Hasan, an Army psychiatrist who killed 13 people in a 2009 shooting rampage at a Texas Army base.

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Gray was convicted and ordered condemned in military court in 1988 for two murders and three rapes in the Fayetteville, North Carolina, area while stationed at Fort Bragg, where he reached the rank of specialist and was a cook. He pleaded guilty in civilian courts to two other killings and five rapes and was sentenced to eight life terms, three of them consecutive.

The federal appeal was filed in 2008 for Gray, whose attorneys claimed he had an ineffective lawyer in his earlier case and lacked the mental capacity to stand trial.

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In successfully pressing for Marten to lift the stay, federal prosecutors argued in a court filing Dec. 9 that Gray "seems to believe that he is entitled to an indefinite federal stay of execution while he exhausts his remedies in the military courts. This is not the law."

Various factors help explain the absence of military executions in recent decades. Condemned inmates may appeal their death sentences to military and civilian courts, potentially delaying an execution for decades, as in Gray's case.