Bush approves execution of soldier, first in 50 years

WASHINGTON — President Bush on Monday approved the execution of an Army soldier who terrorized Fayetteville, N.C., for months in the late 1980s and was eventually convicted of raping and killing four women, and raping and attempting to kill another.

Bush signed off on the death penalty for Ronald A. Gray, who grew up in the Liberty City area of Miami and was stationed at Fort Bragg at the time of the crimes. Eventually, he was convicted in connection with eight rapes and four murders that took place in in the area. Gray, who was 22 and held the rank of specialist at the time of his court martial, has been on death row at the U.S. Disciplinary Barracks in Fort Leavenworth, Kan., since 1988.

Bush's action was the first time in more than half a century that a president has approved the execution of a member of the Armed Services.

"While approving a sentence of death for a member of our Armed Services is a serious and difficult decision for a commander-in-chief, the president believes the facts of this case leave no doubt that the sentence is just and warranted," said White House spokeswoman Dana Perino. She called the crimes "brutal."

Gray will not be put to death for at least 60 days, and it may be much longer because further legal action on his case is possible, said Lt. Col. Anne Edgecomb, an Army spokeswoman. Edgecombe noted that while the last military execution took place in 1961, President Dwight Eisenhower had approved it in 1957.

A president must approve the execution of members of the Armed Services. The request for Gray's execution was sent to the White House in 2005 from the Secretary of Defense after Gray exhausted appeals, Edgecomb said.

It's unclear why Bush didn't act until Monday, but executions nationwide have been on hold while the U.S. Supreme Court reviewed the constitutionality of lethal injection.

Lethal injection is the official method for execution at Fort Leavenworth, Edgecomb said, though there have been no executions since it was adopted. Previously, the military hanged condemned prisoners.

Over the years, countless members of the military have been executed, but only 10 have been put to death since presidential approval was required in 1951 under the Uniform Code of Military Justice, the military's criminal code.

Eisenhower was the last president to approve a death sentence, for John Bennett, an Army soldier convicted of raping and attempting to kill an 11-year-old Austrian girl. He was hanged in 1961.

In 1962, President John F. Kennedy commuted the death sentence of Jimmie Henderson, a Navy seaman, to life in prison.

Five other troops remain on death row at Fort Leavenworth, Edgecomb said. They include Hassan Akbar, convicted of throwing a grenade into an Army tent in Kuwait on the eve of the invasion of Iraq in the first Gulf War. His case has not yet gone to the White House for review.

Still pending before Bush is the death sentence for Dwight Loving. That request was sent up from the Secretary of Defense in 2006.

Also on death row are Marines Wade G. Walker, Kenneth G. Parker and Jessie A. Quintanilla.

In his nearly six years as governor of Texas, Bush presided over 152 exections, more than any governor in recent history.

In June of 2000, Bush granted his first and only 30-day reprieve to Ricky McGinn, who was convicted of raping and murdering his stepdaughter. McGinn had claimed DNA tests — which were not available at the time of his 1992 trial — would exonorate him, but those tests revealed a near-perfect match between McGinn and the hair and semen found on the girl. McGinn was put to death on Sept. 27, 2000.

Gray's crimes terrorized the Fayetteville area.

According to court records, he was arrested on rape charges in January 1987 in the area of Fairlane Acres, a trailer park near Fort Bragg. The next day the body of Kimberly Ann Ruggles, a cab driver, was found near the area. She'd suffered multiple stab wounds and bruises on her face. She'd been raped.

Later that month, the body of Pvt. Laura Lee Vickery-Clay was found, according to court records. She'd been shot four times — in the neck, forehead, chest and back of head, according to records, and had suffered blunt trauma to her face, chest, legs and arms. She, too, had been raped.

Evidence in the cars of both women implicated Gray, according to records.

Media coverage produced another victim, who recognized Gray's face and reported that he'd raped her as well, according to court records. She had been stabbed repeatedly, but survived.

Gray was tried by court-martial, found guilty and given the death penalty. Testimony indicated he was married at the time of the crimes. The defense also presented evidence that he'd grown up under an abusive stepfather in an impoverished neighborhood.

He also pleaded guilty in North Carolina state court to the murders and rapes of two other women and was given sentences of life in prison, according to court records.

Edgecomb, the Army spokeswoman, said the military attempted to reach the victims' families Monday after Bush signed the approval for Gray's execution.

Perino offered condolences.

"The president's thoughts and prayers are with the victims of these heinous crimes and their families and all others affected," she said.

Kristin Butler of the Raleigh News & Observer contributed to this report.