Wilburn Henderson

Sebastian County, Arkansas
Date of Crime: November 26, 1980
Executed July 8, 1998

Wilburn Henderson was sentenced to death for the murder of Willa Dean O'Neal. The murder occurred during an alleged robbery of $41 at a Ft. Smith furniture store that the victim owned with her husband. Police found a yellow piece of paper in the store containing two phone numbers that a real estate agent had given to Henderson. Henderson conceded the paper was his and that he must have dropped it when he was in the store days before the murder. Under police interrogation Henderson gave a statement that he had just happened to have been in the store when another man committed the crime. He later recanted the statement saying he only made it because he feared police would harm him. According to the prosecution, Henderson had obtained a gun from a pawnshop and then pawned it back just after the murder. However, ballistics tests on the gun were inconclusive that it was the murder weapon.

An appeals court overturned Henderson's conviction because his lawyer failed to investigate other suspects, particularly the victim's husband, Bob O'Neal. At retrial, Henderson was again convicted after the prosecution presented a witness, Clarence Wilson, who placed the husband elsewhere at the time of the crime. However, at an earlier federal hearing, Wilson testified differently saying he left the store while Bob O'Neal was still inside.

According to the victim's daughters from a previous marriage, the victim had talked of divorcing her husband. She had also filed an alienation of affection suit against a woman with whom her husband was having an affair. The husband owned the type of gun, a .22 caliber pistol, that was used to shoot his wife. He claimed that it was stolen after the murder. Also, according to different witnesses, he made numerous incriminating statements. For example, at Henderson's trial when the coroner testified that he believed the victim was shot in the head while sitting in a chair, O'Neal reportedly told the woman sitting next to him, “No, that's not the way it was. She dove out of the chair to miss the bullet.” While Henderson was on death row, O'Neal wrote a letter to the state insisting Henderson had been wrongfully convicted. O'Neal died in 1992.

Prior to his second trial, Henderson was offered several plea deals that would have spared his life, including one that would have allowed him to apply immediately for parole. But Henderson turned them down. According to his lawyer, he never wavered on maintaining his innocence. Henderson was executed by lethal injection on July 8, 1998.  [8/08]


References:  Chicago TribuneAppeals

Posted in:  Victims of the State, Arkansas Cases, Defendants Executed After 1976