Lawmakers to consider death penalty bills


LITTLE ROCK — Lawmakers this week will take up legislation to rewrite the state’s stricken death penalty law as opponents of capital punishment draw new encouragement from Gov. Mike Beebe’s comment that he would sign a ban on executions if such a bill reached his desk.

No such measure has been filed or has even been considered, legislative leaders say.

What a legislative panel will consider is a response to a state Supreme Court ruling last year that struck down the state’s lethal injection law.

Executions in Arkansas have been on hold since the state’s highest court ruled that the Legislature “abdicated its responsibility” by giving the Department of Correction too much enforcement discretion in violation of the separation of powers doctrine.

The Methods of Execution Act of 2009 states that a death sentence is to be carried out by lethal injection using one or more chemicals “as determined in kind and amount in the discretion of the director of the Department of Correction.”

The law says the chemicals could be one or more ultra short-acting barbiturates; one or more chemical paralytic agents; potassium chloride; and “any other chemical or chemicals, including but not limited to, saline solution.”

An attorney for one of the prisoners who challenged the law argued last year that the law theoretically would allow any substance, even rat poison, to be used to execute prisoners.

Senate Bill 73, by Sen. Bart Hester, R-Cave City, would set forth specific procedures and chemicals for the prison department to use in carrying out executions.

SB 73 would require prison officials to use one or more of the following: Sodium pentothal or sodium thiopental; pancuronium bromide; potassium chloride; or saline solution. It would remove the phrase “any other chemical or chemicals; including but not limited to,” which the high court said gave the Department of Correction too much discretion.

The bill also sets forth a step-by-step procedure for carrying out executions.

“This clarifies (the Supreme Court’s) concerns,” Hester said, adding that he has discussed the bill with the state attorney general’s office and prison officials.

The judiciary panel also will consider Hester’s SB 52, which would guarantee relatives of the victim of a capital crime a right to witness the execution of the person convicted of the crime if they choose, and would accommodate them by increasing the number of people who can witness an execution.

“This is about victim’s rights,” Hester said. “This simply allows the immediate family members of victims in a capital punishment case to be able to attend the execution … It’s going to help them with closure.”

But death penalty opponents say instead of devising ways to improve the procedure and increase the visibility of putting someone to death, the state should consider less costly alternatives.

“We know the death penalty costs more than life without parole,” said Sam Kooistra, executive director of the Arkansas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty. He cited a recent study by Duke University that found the state of North Carolina would save about $11 million annually if it dropped the death penalty. A recent study in California found that over a lifetime, an inmate on death row costs more than $1 million more than an inmate serving a life sentence without parole, he said.

“These are not small numbers, they are significant savings we could have if we did away with the death penalty,” Kooistra said.

Kooistra said he appreciated the motivation behind the Hester’s bill to allow victims’ relatives to witness executions but opposes it because he believes the state could spend the savings from dropping the death penalty to assist the family of victims and reduce crime.

“If we’re really interested in helping a victim’s family … a smarter, better use of resources would be to do away with the death penalty and fold those savings into things like counseling services for the victims, or throw (the savings) into law enforcement, crime prevention, social services, education, things that prevent crimes from happening in the first place,” Kooistra said.

In a recent appearance before the Political Animals Club, Beebe was asked about a hypothetical bill banning capital punishment. He said he would sign such a measure if it made it through the Legislature.Beebe said his position on capital punishment has evolved after signing numerous death warrants, which he called one of the most difficult things he has had to do as governor.

“I think there is zero chance a bill like that would pass the Legislature,” Hester said. “I think that’s probably one of the reasons why it was easy for (Beebe) to make that statement. But I also think of we passed a law supporting (the death penalty) he would sign that too. I think Mr. Beebe is a governor of the people and he respects the legislative process and that if we pass (SB52 and SB 73) he will sign them.”

On Monday, the Senate is to consider SB 71 by Sen. Bryan King, R-Green Forest, which would give churches the option of allowing people to carry concealed handguns in church. The measure was unanimously endorsed by the Senate Judiciary Committee last week.

On Thursday, the House Public Health and Welfare Committee is to consider House Bill 1037 by Rep. Andy Mayberry, R-Hensley, titled The Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act.

The measure, to be considered Thursday, would ban abortion on a fetus 20 weeks old or older, the age of which the bill asserts that a fetus is capable of feeling pain, except to save the life of the mother or save her from irreversible physical impairment.

The proposal, supported by anti-abortion group Arkansas Right to Life, also would require doctors to record information about all abortions they perform and submit the information to the Department of Health. The department would be required to release annual reports containing abortion statistics, excluding any information that would identify the women.

The Arkansas Chapter of the Americans for Civil Liberties Union opposes the bill.

“What’s so troubling about this bill is that there is such complete disregard about women’s health and for their doctor’s ability to decide what is best for the patient,” she said.