Death Row inmates stall punishment with challenges of method

One of the great ironies of American politics is that most people who are against abortion are also for capital punishment of convicted killers. And most people who are against capital punishment are also for abortion rights, or rather pro-choice, to be politically correct.

You’d think that people who believe absolutely in the sanctity of life would also feel compelled to protect the lives of even our worst human beings. And vice versa, that people who believe it OK to end the life of a fetus would also support the termination of a life for just cause.

But alas, these are two of the most complicated issues we face today, and we don’t seem to be any closer to resolving either than 40 years ago, when the U.S. Supreme Court offered major opinions on both. For a democracy that thrives on the will of the majority and the rule of law, we have no answers that satisfy both sides.

Capital punishment has become a big story again in Arkansas, with Attorney General Dustin McDaniel recently declaring the system for carrying out executions broken. That’s not exactly news, but it’s a critical development because his office plays an important role in executions.

McDaniel told the Arkansas Sheriffs Association and later a legislative committee that the state should have a serious discussion about the death penalty.

Arkansas hasn’t carried out an execution since 2005, when Eric Nance died by lethal injection for the killing and attempted rape of an 18-year-old Malvern girl, Julie Heath. Nance had been the 27th inmate put to death in Arkansas since the U.S. Supreme Court allowed states to resume executions in 1976. The Arkansas Department of Correction website now lists 37 men on Death Row, their sentences dating back as far as 1989. That means they’ve outlived their victims by as much as 24 years despite a jury’s decision that they should be put to death for their crime(s).

The problem is that our court system can’t agree on a method of execution.

All 35 states that still have the death penalty prescribe lethal injection as the primary means of execution, but several, including Arkansas, offer inmates an alternative (electrocution, the gas chamber, hanging or a firing squad). In 2012 the Arkansas Supreme Court struck down the state’s lethal-injection law, ruling that it gave the Department of Correction too much discretion to decide how executions would be carried out and what chemicals should be used. In response the Legislature passed Act 139 this year, but it is already under challenge by nine Death Row inmates.

Act 139 specifies that a condemned prisoner should first be administered a dose of an anti-anxiety drug, then a barbiturate strong enough to cause death. However, McDaniel said the state has no barbiturate and no means to obtain one. Generally, companies that make such drugs won’t sell them for that purpose, and the American Medical Association has decreed it’s unethical for physicians to take part in the process.

Gov. Mike Beebe is not scheduling any executions because it’s an exercise in futility until the inmates’ lawsuit is decided, not to mention the lack of a death-penalty protocol.

McDaniel suggested that most Arkansans would consider alternative methods of execution, such as the electric chair, gas chamber or firing squad, as too barbaric. I suspect he’s wrong about that. Few people have much sympathy for convicted killers.

As the brother of a murder victim, I would have no qualms about seeing her killer executed by any modern means, even though my sister’s case would probably not have had a capital punishment possibility if brought to trial. Putting another person to death cannot, by definition, be a comfortable process, and I don’t envy those sitting on juries in such cases or those carrying out their sentences.

But capital punishment is the law of the land and the will of the majority. The attorney general said the state could also ask its congressional delegation to press for changes in the law to allow for the importation of the drugs needed for lethal injection. The state should have already done so, and our congressmen shouldn’t need to be asked. Let’s start the discussion there.

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Roy Ockert is editor emeritus of The Jonesboro Sun. He may be reached by e-mail at