Abolishing the death penalty

Governor Beebe’s declaration, a few days ago, that he would sign a bill abolishing the death penalty in Arkansas in the (highly improbable) event such legislation reached his desk caused a bit of confusion. At a meeting of the Political Animals club last week Mr. Beebe said he had been confronted four times with the “awesome” question of life or death for a condemned killer.

It turns out Mr. Beebe’s miscounted. According to his staff, not four inmates, but eight. And not four, or eight, death warrants to consider, but an even dozen; the legal machinery had restarted the process in the cases of four prisoners whose sentences initially had been stayed by a judge, then returned to the Governor before additional appeals again made the question of final executive action moot. The back-and-forth of those four inmates, one of his aides suggested, had led the chief executive to unintentionally understate, in pure numbers, a burden of office.

But, no, Mr. Beebe will not seek to end capital punishment, and should the system send more death warrants to his office he almost certainly will sign them, just as they almost certainly will be voided before the appointed hour. And, no, there is at best limited support in the General Assembly for any legislation (at this writing there is none) that would retire the state’s needle. There is a bill to address a matter of execution protocol, the Arkansas Supreme Court having ruled that the legislature cannot leave to the discretion of the prison system which drugs are sent through the needle, but that shouldn’t take the lawmakers very long to resolve. In comparatively few House and Senate districts is there much political damage to be feared by taking the matter of executions too seriously.

In addressing the discrepancy between his boss’s spontaneous recollection and the official record, Matt DeCample, the Governor’s press secretary, told me in an e-mail that Mr. Beebe had signed the last three execution warrants knowing “that they were going to be stayed almost immediately.” DeCample said Mr. Beebe’s putting his pen to the documents was a matter of “duty.”

So, eight inmates, 12 death warrants, all voided by the same system that sent them to Death Row, where they remain to this day, with 25 other men facing the same possibility. Their number is likely to increase before it diminishes.

With the Governor’s disavowal of any intent to pursue abolition of the death penalty, and legislative interest in the subject of capital punishment all but restricted to preserving it, that would be the end of the discussion — except it won’t be. Simply by making public his distaste for state-sponsored killing, Mr. Beebe put a little new fire in the bellies of those who abhor it.

“Magnificent,” was the judgment of a long-time opponent of the death penalty who was present for the Governor’s comment but who declined to be identified by name. “I knew he felt that way in his heart but never thought I’d hear him say it.”

Bob Sells, a retired Little Rock advertising executive and a prominent opponent of capital punishment, wondered if Mr. Beebe’s “evolved” disdain of the death sentence might prompt one or more hardy legislators to undertake repeal.

“Now that (the Governor) has made a statement,” Sells told me, “I wonder if there’s anybody in the House or Senate with the guts to take it on.”

If guts were the sole criteria a bill already would have been introduced, probably by a member of the Black Caucus. Intensely aware of the historic racial disparity in application of the death sentence in the U.S. and, especially, the South (though of late it has not been so acute in Arkansas), African-American lawmakers, no more tolerant of violent crime than their white colleagues but archly suspicious of the system’s capacity for equitable punishment, have longed to make the last execution the very last one. Other factors come into play, however, including every sophisticated legislator’s reluctance to endanger potential alliances on close issues (such as Medicaid expansion) that would ultimately benefit a constituency that outnumbers the inhabitants of a particular cell block at Tucker Max.

A few lawmakers will probably launch a death penalty repeal attempt, knowing the Governor already has assisted them by signaling he will not oppose them. If their bill already is as doomed as the men on Death Row, they will have tested their peers, though not so much as our certainties.

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Steve Barnes is host of Arkansas Week on AETN.