Melbert Ray Ford Jr. took his last breath on June 9 at 7:27 p.m., more than 24 years after the last breaths of those he murdered. He ate most of his last meal and declined a sedative as well as a prayer request from the prison chaplin at the Georgia Diagnostic and Classification Prison in Jackson. His last words were not ones of remorse for his crimes but thanks to his family, friends and loved ones.
According to records from the Newton County Superior Court, Ford and Martha Chapman Matich, 31, had a romantic relationship and when it soured, he began harassing her by phone. Ford spoke to several people about robbing the store where she worked and told at least one person that he intended to kill Martha.
It wasn’t his first time threatening someone. In 1978, he was convicted of terroristic threats and actions and criminal trespassing in Cobb County.
"Finally, Ford met 19-year-old Roger Turner, who was out of a job and nearly out of money," reads a transcript from Ford’s trial. "By plying him with alcohol, and promising him that they could easily acquire $8,000, Ford persuaded Turner to help him. They drove in Turner’s car to Chapman’s Grocery, arriving just after closing time. Ford shot away the lower half of the locked and barred glass door and entered the store. Turner, waiting in the car, heard screams and gunshots. Then Ford ran from the store to the car, carrying a bag of money."
The store’s burglar alarm sounded at 10:20 p.m., according to the transcripts, and when the Newton County Sheriff’s deputy arrived at 10:27 p.m., he reportedly found Martha lying dead behind the counter. She had been shot three times with a .32 caliber pistol. Lisa Renee Chapman, 11, was found in the bathroom. She had been shot in the head but was still alive, sitting on a bucket, bleeding from the head and convulsing. She died later — never able to answer questions about the incident.
Both Ford and Turner were arrested the next day, and Turner confessed first. Ford allegedly told investigators the shooting began after Martha pushed the alarm button. He also at said his trial that he was "too drunk to know what was happening and that it was Turner who entered the store and killed the victims."
Ford was convicted of burglary, possession of a firearm during a crime, armed robbery and murder — for which he was sentenced to death on Oct. 23, 1986.
Cindy Chapman-Griffeth, the mother of Lisa, said in an interview Monday, “I feel like I have been at war, but instead of guns it has been a knife in my heart the whole time.
After the execution, as the sun was setting on the grounds of the prison, she said she felt closure but wished that Ford had admitted what he had done and asked her forgiveness.
Chapman-Griffeth described her daughter as a tenderhearted girl who loved animals, especially horses, and people and was always smiling and laughing. She attended Livingston Elementary School where students still stroll through a wing named in her honor. The young girl dreamed of becoming a teacher one day.
“She liked to learn sign language and speaking to people who were impaired,” said Chapman-Griffeth. “She loved unicorns and walking behind her daddy as he plowed the garden, pushing the dirt between her toes. She loved to help me cook and being a big sister. She was also saved the week before she was murdered at a Bible school at Prospect Methodist Church.”
Martha’s brother Paul described his sister as a quiet, reserved girl who tended to be a follower.
"She always looked for the good in every individual,” he said.
Paul said he met Ford only once, when he came to Georgia in 1985 for his mother’s funeral. He remembered noticing his controlling and manipulative behavior during a meal. Being a Baptist minister, Paul was used to counseling people.
“I took her aside and I told her that he was evil and she needed to put him aside,” said Paul. “She told me that she thought he would change. My sister loved life and looked for the good in everyone. She tried to see the good in this man, or this monster, and thought that maybe she could change him. But as we know, that didn’t take place.”
Martha’s family, who owned Chapman’s Store where Martha and Lisa were killed, knew Ford was abusive throughout their roughly year-and-a-half-long relationship. At one point, he tied her up in the trailer the two shared and burned and tortured her. Martha had to have a police escort home every night after working at the store. Just before her death she moved in with Chapman-Griffeth and her family.
The night of March 6, 1986, Martha and another woman were working at the store, but the other woman went home sick. Lisa was at the store playing with the minnows and crickets sold as bait and didn’t want to leave her aunt alone at the store.
According to the March 23, 1986 edition of The Covington News, Turner confessed that “Ford described killing Lisa Chapman in the bathroom at the grocery. Turner said that Ford told him that she was crouched by the toilet staring at him, so he felt he had to shoot her.”
“She was begging him not to do it in the bathroom where she went to hide,” said Chapman-Griffeth Monday.
When asked what she would say to Ford if given the opportunity, Chapman-Griffeth stumbled.
“I don’t know what I would say to him,” she said. “I’m trying to find peace in my heart and I think this will help. I don’t think the man has any remorse and if he doesn’t I hope he burns 70 times in Hell. He says he’s a changed man but he’s never admitted to doing it.
“Twenty-four years and 32 appeals and he’s never admitted it.”
Paul said that he has forgiven Ford because that’s what God would want him to do.
“Some say the death penalty should not be carried out because those were Old Testament laws, but I still believe to this day that he should pay for what he’s done and therefore, if he is put to death, he has received what he deserves,” said Paul, adding that it would be easier for him to forgive Ford if he admitted to the murders and apologized for committing them.
Although the families of Ford’s victims are in favor of his execution, members of Georgians For Alternatives to the Death Penalty organized vigils protesting capital punishment in cities across the state. About 15 protesters from the organization stood outside of the prison during the execution.
“Georgians For Alternatives to the Death Penalty denounces state killing in our names,” said Vice-Chair Kathryn Hamoudah in an e-mail. “We believe that this ultimate punishment is inhumane, arbitrary in application; perpetuates violence and does nothing to keep our communities safer, nor does it address the needs of victims’ families.”
The group is made up of “a coalition of individuals and organizations with a variety of representation, including those that minister to families of those on death row as well as murder victim family members who oppose the death penalty” according to www.gfadp.org.
"We are here to keep vigil and stand against Georgia's actions in taking the life of Melbert Ray Ford tonight,” Hamoudah said. “We stand unified as we remember the loss of life that brings us together and the victims’ family.”
Katey Brown drove from Macon to the vigil, as she has for five other executions.
"I as a taxpayer and a voter am responsible and this is not what I consider an appropriate way to protect society," Brown said.
Chapman-Griffeth, however, feels differently.
“I think it should be done to him the same way he did it to my daughter and my sister-in-law,” she said of Ford’s execution. “I think lethal injection is too good for him. That night I lost a part of my heart that will never be filled.”
Newton County Sheriff Ezell Brown was a deputy at the time of Lisa and Martha’s murder and remembers vividly working with other law enforcement officers to bring their killer to justice.
“I feel that the justice system has carried out its responsibility for ensuring that the victims have justice,” he said. “While their families still live with the horrific memory at least they know that the perpetrator has been brought to justice. Twenty-four years ago other deputies and I had the responsibility of witnessing probably the most gruesome crime of my entire 37 years in law enforcement. Immediately we focused our attention on suspect Melbert Ray Ford and did not rest until we arrested Ford for his careless acts. Today our work is done.”