‘I would sign it.’


They are not designed to make news, these meetings of the Political Animals Club, and usually they don’t, not big news. Rather they are bipartisan networking events, the occasional mid-day social hour for the politics and policy crowd.

All things considered the news that came from the Little Rock chapter’s luncheon of January 16 luncheon wasn’t that big. Still.

Per tradition the speaker at the year’s first meeting is the incumbent governor, and Mike Beebe honored the custom. A few jokes and recollections, a comment or two about the legislative session just begun, and then to the floor for questions. The first person Mr. Beebe recognized was Annie Abrams, the veteran Little Rock civil rights activist.

In the second half of his second and final term, Abrams wondered, what would he do should the Arkansas General Assembly send a bill to his desk abolishing the death penalty?

“I would sign it,” the Governor replied.

There was applause but less than an ovation.

Mr. Beebe continued.

He had been lucky, he said; 12*** times in his tenure death warrants had reached his desk, the fates of four men — yes, men who had taken the lives of others in a heinous manner — hinging, if at that stage largely notionally, on his signature. As did his predecessors, he had reviewed the trial transcripts and scoured each page — “every word” — for flaws in forensics, contradictions in testimony or procedural errors. Spotting none, and concluding that the evidence of guilt was compelling, he had signed the warrants only to see the executions stayed by the courts pending further review. It appears he will continue to be fortunate, the Governor said, as the pace of the appellate machinery makes it unlikely he will have to decide before leaving office whether to honor a jury’s finding for the needle or exercise executive clemency.

Assessing the documents, confronting the death warrants, was “agonizing,” “heart-wrenching,” Mr. Beebe said. And if a reading of the case files would underscore the inmates’ guilt, “that’s different than being the one who signs the death warrant.”

I was searching my memory (as later I searched my haphazard files, and the Internet) for what Mr. Beebe had said regarding capital punishment in years past. Recollection, newspaper clips and the ‘Net suggested a pro forma support and general discomfort with the issue, as in his comment that he felt obligated as governor to follow the dictates of the legislature and the courts, the latter to include, absent contravening developments, juries. “Nobody does this lightly, but it is the law,” the Governor said in 2008.

Now it was 2013.

Had his thinking on the death penalty evolved? I asked.

“I’ve evolved,” he nodded. Then he put it another way: signing a death warrant “will sober you up.”

He had never been rhetorically drunk on death penalty rhetoric, Mr. Beebe, unlike many another politician, here or elsewhere; he had taken his in sips, with a chaser. And once in office, as now, he spoke of the “awesome burden” of deciding whether another man will live or die, even one judged in accordance with the law to be evil beyond earthly redemption, a continuing and lethal threat to others, his pulse wholly incompatible with the heartbeat of a civilized society. The preceding sentence is mostly mine, and purposefully rococo. Here’s Mr. Beebe’s version minus the filigree: a death warrant awaiting his consideration “is no longer an abstract.”

Allowing a bill repealing capital punishment to become law without his signature, that would be abstract approval; Mr. Beebe raised the prospect as if only to dismiss it out of hand. “I would sign it,” he repeated.

Yet the colloquy itself was an abstract. Mr. Beebe said he did not expect such legislation to clear the General Assembly (neither does anyone else) and, sure enough, the tables at the Governor’s Mansion were still being cleared when Speaker Davy Carter, at the Capitol, told a reporter he could detect no legislative sentiment for it.

The Governor has emphasized he will be done with elective office when his term ends and thus it is difficult to detect a political calculation in his comments. So was he sharing an epiphany, or merely complaining aloud about an unpleasant aspect of a job he twice successfully sought, fantasizing that the legislature would rid him of it? Was he, is he still, wrestling with his conscience? His intellect? And if he would spare himself and his successors (and, at present, 37 condemned inmates) the ordeal of execution nights, then why not undertake repeal himself?

I don’t know. I know he said he would sign a bill. I think he would welcome it.

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Steve Barnes is host of Arkansas Week on AETN.

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*** This article has been corrected from its original version. Click here to view the article about why the change was necessary.