The state’s plan to execute eight men in pairs over eleven days guaranteed international attention and got it, aplenty. Global coverage, which tapered only slightly as the number of inmates in immediate jeopardy shrank.
The first to obtain a reprieve won it in two stages. In early April the Arkansas Parole Board heard the man’s clemency appeal and found the punishment excessive, then recommended to Governor Asa Hutchinson that the death sentence be commuted to life imprisonment. A federal district judge quickly agreed with defense attorneys that, under state law, said recommendation automatically invoked a 30-day “comment period.” Since one of the three drugs Arkansas law specifies be used in the lethal injection execution process expires at the end of the month, the Parole Board’s finding effectively delayed the death of Jason McGehee indefinitely. Indefinitely — about which more in a moment.
The Arkansas Supreme Court, or a bare majority thereof (tart dissents were filed) then spared two more of the condemned pending further action. And then a third, sending him, too, beyond the drug’s expiration date, buying him months, possibly years of additional time. That left four men subject to the needle, and all four have been sent to the gurney as none saw May Day.
— “Indefinitely” — support for the death penalty remains substantial among Arkansas voters and is overwhelming in the General Assembly, which does not like the word “indefinitely.” But obtaining the drugs necessary to carry out lethal injections, already a bizarre and disturbingly secretive task, has become all but impossible. The state has acknowledged as much. Pharmaceutical manufacturers are refusing to sell the needed substances to Arkansas or any other state for executions, and have gone to court to block their use (here, without success).
Which raises the question: what method of execution will it (or the Governor) propose? Seeking to delay the lethal injections, attorneys for some of the inmates argued in court that death by firing squad was not only preferable but easily enough arranged. And, unmentioned, economical: a handful of volunteers with high-powered rifles, one of them with a dummy round for the sake conscience, a chair and some sandbags. (The shooters would need to aim for the left ventricle, a doctor testified, to insure a speedy, “comparatively” painless execution, as the aforementioned cardiac chamber is the heart’s “workhorse.”) And, the lawyers suggested, might not gas be another option?
The only sure thing is that an alternative, at least one, to lethal injection will surface. Soon.
— Whether today’s technology speeds or hinders the pace of execution, and the attendant litigation, depends on whether one wishes to see a death sentence carried out. Electronic filing enables attorneys for the inmates to submit appeals at the touch of a button, at any hour, and for the state to respond in like fashion; and allows judges to consider and decide the matter whenever. The telephone is still an option (and there is one in the death chamber at Varner, in case…) but cyber-space delivers more information and argument, and faster than any fax. In almost all the eight scheduled executions inmate appeals and responses from the attorney general were flying all day and into the night.
Virtually every Arkansas courtroom is dotted with flat-screen television monitors, for display of exhibits; and wi-fi equipped. Still, paper is not obsolete. “It’s amazing how technology has made this work easier,” one of the state’s attorneys told me one day during a break in proceedings in federal district court. I glanced beyond him to the attorneys’ tables: each was smothered in documents, clipped or in cinderblock-thick binders.
— That global coverage: a small, early part of it came when the state prison director, Wendy Kelley, spoke to Little Rock civic club a few weeks ago and mentioned that the Department of Correction could use some volunteers as witnesses. State law demands that at least six “respectable” citizens view each execution, not to include journalists (who are represented in the observation room by a pool of three reporters) or relatives of the condemned’s victim(s). Eight executions (as then officially anticipated) — that’s a lot of respectable witnesses.
Or perhaps not that many, though maybe still a little difficult to arrange. At 7:20 on the night of April 24, when Jack Jones was put to death, eleven citizen witnesses were in place. Three hours later, when Marcel Williams was injected, those same eleven individuals, plus one, were seated. The two cases were related only by offense (murder) and sentence. Could it be that support for the death penalty extends mostly to other people actually carrying it out, other people viewing it?